• Design

Personas: What are they and why are they useful?

Mia E Lee
Mia Ellis-Lee
Design & Frontend Development
Write to Mia

You may have heard the term “personas” used in the context of software or web development, but what are they and why do people use them? In short, personas are fictionalized representations of a subset of users. In other words, personas are made up people that represent a larger group.

Typically personas are created from research and observation of user behaviours, but they can also be created using your own assumptions. Of course, your personas will likely lead to more accurate conclusions if they are supported by research, but can still be useful when created in a vacuum.

While personas represent a subset of users, they are conceived of as an individual person. So while your subset of users that you are representing with a persona may be “teachers”, your persona would be “Jane Doe”. Creating a specific (but fictional) person forces our thinking to be relevant to that specific person, their unique goals, characteristics, and emotions. Personas are given characteristics that help to shape and define them:

  • a name, 
  • age, 
  • occupation, 
  • technical prowess, 
  • accessibility needs,
  • Motivations,
  • frustrations 
  • and key goals (to name a few)

Key goals, motivations, or frustrations are typically given in the first-person form of “I…” statements so that they are presented from the viewpoint of the persona in question. By using our persona information to shape our persona’s goals/motivations/frustrations, we can discover insights that will make our UX/UI strategy more effective.

For example, let’s take our hypothetical persona of Jane Doe, the teacher. If we were developing an intranet portal for a school, we might come to the conclusion that Jane would be frustrated if she cannot easily find where to enter her student’s grades. We might then decide to prioritize the link to the relevant page in the navigation by giving it a different appearance.

Let’s take a deeper dive…

Now that you have an understanding of personas, let’s put what we’ve learned into practice. Download the following document to take a look at a person that we’ve pre-created. In our hypothetical scenario, we are developing a website for Green Power Corp (GPC). GPC is a publicly-traded utility company, with local subsidiaries across the country. GPC is focused on providing customers with reliable, clean energy while rewarding shareholders with an environmentally sustainable, socially positive, and profitable investment opportunity.​ Within the users for this website, there is a subset that can be classified as “Institutional Investors” - for example, an investor working for an asset manager or a government entity like the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

Taking a look at our example persona, we can see that we’ve given him his own name (“Charles Wong”) and a photo. These are our first steps in creating a persona. It may seem trivial, but having a specific name and a specific photo helps greatly in portraying your persona as a real person.

We’ve also filled out some of Charles’ demographic information. This information should be specific to Charles, but should also be indicative of the subset of users that Charles represents. For example, Charles represents institutional investors - it’s a fairly strong assumption to make that most institutional investors will at least be over the age of 25 and most will be under the age of 80. So we don’t want to set Charles’ age to be a value that we know is not a likely trait of our user subset. If, as we develop our personas, we think that institutional investors under 40 may differ in a significant way in terms of how they may use the website from institutional investors over 40, then it may make sense to create multiple personas with varying ages. Similar to age, we want information like gender, location, technology used, background, and traits to be specific to Charles but also generally representative of his subset. Brands and influences can be a useful part of a persona to include - this helps us to see the kinds of values/aesthetic/lifestyle/interests that Charles may have in a shorthand way. Brands and influences can quickly communicate a lot about a persona with few words. 

Finally, goals, motivations, and frustrations are some of the most useful things to include within a persona. This is where we start to illuminate and glean information that will help shape our UI/UX strategy. Importantly, we want to phrase our goals, motivations, and frustrations in the first person (i.e. “I am frustrated that…”) to keep these insights tied to our persona.

Next Steps

Our example persona is not intended to be prescriptive - you can add any fields you think might be useful or remove any fields that you think may not be relevant. A good persona creation tool (i.e. UXPressia) will give you the ability to add and remove fields as you wish. 

Now that you have a handle on personas, try creating your own personas! Or, keep expanding your knowledge and take your personas to the next level by learning how to create journey maps for your personas!

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