Personas 101: What Are They and Why Should I Care?

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Note: This is reprinted from Elastic Path’s blog post on an internal presentation I gave about personas to my colleagues. Here’s the original post.

When you think of “personas” – what comes to mind?

Are personas profiles of hypothetical customers that marketing invented? Or, are personas developed from customer surveys asking what they want and don’t want from your website? Are they segments of your web visitors?

The answer to all the above is, “no.”

Says Elastic Path’s User Experience Manager, Laura Ballay: “personas is a term like ‘design’ that gets tossed around and means different things to different people,” and often, folks confuse personas with other elements of marketing and research.

In an internal presentation to Elastic Path staff, Laura explained what personas are in a user-experience context, and why we use them in our consulting practice. This post is adapted from this presentation.

Personas: Deceptively Simple in Appearance

Personas are fictional characters based on actual observed behaviors of real users that a UX professional experiences in the field, talking one-on-one with users. These customer profiles are a composite of this qualitative research, and are typically presented as 1-2 page documents.

Good personas

A good persona description is not a list of tasks or duties. It’s a narrative that describes the flow of someone’s day, as well as their skills, attitudes, environment and goals. A persona answers critical questions that a job description or task list doesn’t, such as:

  • Which pieces of information are required at what points in the day?
  • Do users focus on one thing at a time, carrying it through to completion, or are there a lot of interruptions?
  • Why are they using this product in the first place?

What a persona is not

A persona is not a demographic profile, a market segment or a summation of survey data. Rather, a persona is a combination of data modeled from ethnographic and behavioral user research, as well as narrative. The term persona often gets clumped together with market research (surveys, focus groups, etc), and though they are not the same thing, market research can certainly complement persona studies.

Ethnographic Research – Huh?

If you’re a Simpson’s fan, you’ll recall the classic episode where Homer’s half-brother Herb invites Homer to design the ideal car for the “everyman.” Homer insists on extra large cup holders, shag carpeting, tailfins and separate bubble domes for the kids. The end result is a “monstrosity” that costs $82,000.

This is not what persona development is about! It is not taking what people tell you directly, it’s looking at their behaviors in order to understand the “whys” and build around them. Observation is key, because what people do and say can be entirely different things. For example, a small business owner may report that she does not use paper anymore – all her record keeping is electronic. But if you look at her home office, you may find binders full of print-outs of Excel reports and invoices.

The danger of listening to customers: Walmart’s mistake

Listen to your customers! Customer is king! The customer is always right!


Depends what you ask. And how you ask.

Walmart found out the hard (and costly) way when it cleaned house and made its stores “less cluttered,” after posing the question to customers: “Would you like Walmart aisles to be less cluttered?” Now honestly, who is not going to say “yes” to that? Cluttered never has a good connotation, like the word “boring.”

If I asked you if you would like Get Elastic to be less boring, you categorically would have to say yes, as the alternative is more boring. Should I take that “data” and conclude that I need to add more entertainment articles about Charlie Sheen? Or should I rather watch you interact with your RSS reader and observe which articles you read, star and share vs. “mark as read” without reading to truly understand what kind of content you value?

Walmart spent hundreds of millions of dollars to de-clutter, ditching 15% of inventory. Sales went kaputsky. We’re talkin’ BILLIONS of dollars in lost sales.

Ethnography: The cure for the common customer

This is why ethnography, or “fieldwork” is a powerful tool. Think of Jane Goodall, observing her subjects in their natural habitat. Great insight comes from interaction and observation.

Is it just me, or is that gorilla lighting up a cigarette?

How are subjects observed?

There are 3 primary techniques for gathering data for persona development:

“Charlie Rose” interviews are one-on-one, in-depth conversations, rich with Q&A and probing. The “fly on the wall” is observational, where you might shadow someone for a day or longer and ask questions throughout. The “master and apprentice” technique is where the subject teaches you the system they use or common activities they perform.

The benefits of personas

Personas can be really helpful for design and development planning. Often times, we’re so focused on requirements we forget who’s actually using the system. Personas:

  • Identify opportunities and product gaps to drive strategy
  • Provide a quick and cheap way to test, validate and prioritize ideas throughout development
  • Give focus to projects by building a common understanding of customers across teams
  • Help development teams empathize with users, including their behaviors, goals, and expectations
  • Serve as a reference tool that can be used from strategy through to implementation

When should you create personas?

Persona development should ideally start prior to any strategy. They are most effective when used to inform a strategy, that is, to hone in on specific opportunities to improve, innovate on, or fill other gaps, and are critical to have before making any significant changes to an existing project or kicking off any “innovation” projects.

What does the persona research and development process look like?

Research Process

  • Participant and research requirements gathering
  • Recruiting and planning the study
  • Conducting user research interviews
  • Analysis and synthesis of interviews
  • Creation of the persona profile

How should personas be applied?

Personas are primarily developed to help determine where there are opportunities and areas for improvement in a website or application’s experience. This can guide the feature set and validate your UI design decisions. You may also find value in sharing your persona data with web marketing teams to apply to A/B tests and email campaigns, your web analytics team, customer service / sales organization and even to guide your personalization strategy.

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