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Explaining Personas used in UX Design – Part 1

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.

UX vs. Marketing personas

While there are similarities between the Marketing & UX personas as documents, that similarity really only extends as far as using a name and a picture to represent content. The actual content of each, how they are derived, and what their purpose is completely different.

Marketing personas are more general, focusing on market segmentations, including their demographics, attitudes and perceived aspirations. On the other hand UX personas focus on the specific goals and behavior patterns of your target users, representing observations of real people who have been observed in research.

Here’s some Wikipedia cutting and pasting of definitions.

Personas in design
As used in the design field, the Persona is an artifact that consists of a narrative relating to a desired user or customer’s daily behavior patterns, using specific details, not generalities.

Marketing Personas
Fictional characters created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic, attitude and/or behaviour set that might use a site, brand or product in a similar way.

User Personas
A representation of the goals and behaviour of a real group of users. In most cases, personas are synthesized from data collected from interviews with users. They are captured in 1–2 page descriptions that include behaviour patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and environment, with a few fictional personal details to make the persona a realistic character.

My personal opinion is that Marketing personas give personas in general a bad reputation as they are usually less tangible and contain a lot of made-up irrelevant fluff. I know there are exceptions to the rule, but the marketing personas I have personally come across in my travels haven’t been based on research and added little value.

On the other hand, UX personas are not a fictional guess at what a target user thinks, but rather a tool to communicate the findings of the aggregated behaviours of research participants. I find personas are an invaluable UX tool because they are focused on specific behaviors and provide very clear direction for making design decisions.

Goals of UX Personas

There are two key goals of UX personas in a project:

  1. Represent the findings of research into user behaviours.
  2. Provide guidance on decisions in the design and development process.

UX personas are a great way to drive the findings of user research in to the design of a product. They are a powerful storytelling tool to represent the needs of a target audience. They help the team to visualise and understand user behaviours by giving a face and name to the primary types of users. This helps to focus the design on their needs.

A well-researched and constructed persona almost becomes another member of the team. Once everyone starts referring to a persona by name it can feel like they are there in the room with you, providing direction about what they would do, their behaviours, mental models and goals when undertaking specific tasks.

Personas are archetypes that describe the various goals and observed behaviour patterns among your potential users and customers. They can be used to help guide decisions about product, features, navigation, visual design.
Kim Goodwin, Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-centered Products and Services

An important note is that UX personas are generally project specific and should not be reused across different products. Done well, they should provide very specific direction for guidance for day-to-day design and development teams. If personas are general enough to be used across products, they are usually unable to provide this detailed guidance and become far less effective.

Part 2: Creating UX Personas using research-based insights

16 Comments leave one →
  1. James Lang permalink
    October 17, 2012 7:04 pm


    Like your article, particularly pt2. I feel the need to stand up for marketing ‘personas’ though.

    As someone with a foot in both market research and user research camps (and a user of both kinds of personas), I think there are a lot of misconceptions around the two. In my experience, marketing people tend to misunderstand UX personas, because they look so much like the output of segmentation research. The difference – as you point out – is in what they’re for and how they’re used, i.e. UX personas are created with design objectives in mind and marketing personas are created with the intention of describing an entire customer base for, say, market modelling or media buying purposes. They’re not suitable for UX work, any more than a spanner is suitable for hammering a nail.

    Part of the problem lies in terminology. Personally, I prefer to keep the term ‘personas’ for the UX version and use a different label for the marketing version – I prefer ‘pen portraits’ or (if the output is essentially a description of a real person, ‘case studies’).

    FWIW, I find that marketing segmentation (the pen portraits, but more to the point the raw data) can be a useful starting input to crafting UX personas, but they lack the detail and context and for that further research is needed. Marketing ‘personas’ that weren’t based on a robust quantitative segmentation, or at the very least a large qualitative sample, I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they also look very similar. It doesn’t help that two very different outputs dress up in the same clothes, and I think this is where much of the confusion arises.

    Thanks for the article, as you can probably tell(!) this is a pet subject of mine and I’m glad to see someone writing about it.




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