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Explaining Personas used in UX Design – Part 2

May 13, 2011

Out of the entire UX toolkit, personas are the tool that I find myself having to explain and justify the most. Everyone that I’ve introduced them to recently, as part of the overall UX process, seems to have a negative association with them that is usually based upon some Marketing driven personas that they’ve been exposed to previously and have seen little value in.

So in this 2-part piece, here’s how I explain the how they are created and differences in how they are used.

Creating UX Personas using research-based insights

Done properly personas are created after conducting qualitative research with the target users of a product. After talking in-depth to these users about their mindsets, motivations and behaviours, the research findings are analysed to identify common behaviour trends between the users. These commonalities are then summarised and used to create individual personas that represent that group of participants.

The real world details and quotes from participants are used to flesh out the ‘personality’ of the personas, thereby ensuring that they represent real world experiences rather than fictional internal expectations of what the target audience does.

Here’s the steps involved in creating them:

1. Conduct research

The first step is to conduct user research to understand the target audience’s mindsets, motivations and behaviours.

For an existing product, this might involve observing or talking with current users about both their problems and positive experiences using your product. For a new or existing product, you could do user research with people who are roughly like your prospective users in order to understand their needs.

In-depth user interviews are the most common form of qualitative research. More extensive research can include field studies, observing users’ behaviour and asking them about their goals and attitudes. In addition, you can do usability testing to observe user behaviours.

2. Identify the behavioural variables

When analysing the research, the goal is to find patterns that enable you to group similar people together into types of users, by identifying behavioural variables. Behaviour variables are aspects of behaviour and attitude that differ between participants. Task frequency, mental models, and goals are all common types of variables.

When conducting research it is good to start with some key variables to ask questions about, and then add to these based on the insights that come of the interviews.

Behavioural variables identified in post-it notes. Behavioural variables identified in post-it notes.

Behavioural variables identified in post-it notes.

How behavioural variables can look in polished documentation.

How behavioural variables can look in polished documentation.

3. Cluster the behaviours

Once you’ve identified a list of behavioural variables they can be laid out on a set of sliders, with opposing behaviours placed on either end. Go through the research notes and mark out where each participant would sit on each slider based on their responses.  This will normally result clusters of participants developing at different points along the sliders.

Research participants (A,B,C…) mapped out on behavioural variables.

Research participants (A,B,C…) mapped out on behavioural variables.

4. Identity trends

Analyse the grouping of the behaviours across on the sliders, identifying trends where the same participants are grouped together across multiple variables. These grouping trends across all the sliders will then form the basis of each persona.

The numbers of participants in your research will have direct result on how clear the trends become. The more participants you include, the larger the clusters will become, making each trend stronger.

Behavioural variables with participants trends identified.

Behavioural variables with participants trends identified.

5. Create a persona for each of the trends

Add personal details to create a realistic picture of a user, focusing on specific user needs. Note down tasks that persona is most likely to perform and how they would approach them. Think about how the attributes in the clusters influence user behaviour.

6. Prioritise personas

Prioritize the personas on the basis of business needs. The idea is to ensure that the primary persona you use during design is a clear and correct representation of your primary user population, not an edge case.

7. Create scenarios and tell stories

Take the key tasks that your product supports and then create the scenario that your personas would likely be in when they engage in these tasks. Tell a story to describe how each persona would be thinking and how they would behave in the situation.

Storytelling narratives are a powerful communication tool that can be used to create empathy with your users and what they would be going through.

8. Create persona documentation

When writing personas, include the following information:

  • Name and a picture of the persona (this allows them to be easily identified)
  • Any relevant demographic description
  • Goals
  • Needs
  • Behaviours
  • Abilities

This is an example of a persona template (here’s the .ppt version):

A basic persona template

A basic persona template

These are some examples of what the polished documents can look like:

Examples of polished persona documents Examples of polished persona documents

Examples of polished persona documents

Pictures for each persona can be sourced from the web easily enough (Google images, Flickr, Getty images).

You should avoid using real names or details, whether from your research participants or people you know. This can either cause issues with the confidentially of your research participants, or just simply bias/taint the objectivity of your personas based on team members own personal opinions.

Roles vs Personas

Personas can easily become just a reflection of roles within a system, rather identifying different behaviours within these roles. This is particularly common when designing workplace software, rather than mass-market products. It’s usually a result of not digging deep enough to identify the different behaviour patterns within each role. Sometimes just identifying the roles is as far as you have the time/resource to get.

Although UX purists would argue that a set of personas that only has one persona per role is actually just a set of roles represented in a persona format, there is still a lot of design value in doing this. These role-based personas still help focus the team on the user needs and provide direction for design decisions that can be based on real world user behaviours.

The danger is role-based personas is that there is often a temptation to create them based existing team knowledge of the system, which just leads to confirming your own biases. If you’re not creating personas based on research-derived insights then you’re taking the ‘user’ out of the ‘user experience design’.

Lean UX personas

There are lots of different ways to document personas. The most common is to create a glossy one-pager that has a photo of a person, their name, behavioural variables, and a description of how they behave.

These can make great visual artefacts that look really impressive when printed out and put up on a wall.  They can also take lots of time to create, just like any other polished document.

This level of polish is not always required. My favourite approach in recent projects has been to take a Lean philosophy to the documentation and make lightweight personas using post-it notes. In the examples below we created them while we were still conducting user interviews and analysing the findings.  As soon as we started identifying behavioural variables and trends we started mapping them out on the wall and added details to them along the way.

These might not have been produced using the full formal UX persona process, but they still achieved the two key goals of personas: representing research finding and informing design decisions made by the team. More importantly, they were done quickly and with little overhead time. We could have turned them in to polished documents to print out and put up on the wall, but we didn’t need to as they were already on the wall.

Examples of post-it note personas Examples of post-it note personas

Examples of post-it note personas

Recommended reading

Here’s some more in-depth reading if you’re interested:

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