"Personas" is a tool used in human centered design and service design. In essence, it involves the creation of archetypical "users" of a product or service. Usually, we create several different personas to capture the range of users or stakeholders that we need to understand in order to design successfully. Ideally personas emerge from data collected from actual observations of and/or interviews with actual potential users, but they can also be generated introspectively. We use personas to inform ourselves about user needs, to discipline and inspire ideation, and as a feedback vehicle for prototyping and iterating.

Each persona is a fiction or ideal whose characteristics capture what is distinctive about some category of user or type of stakeholder or partner. Personas are often a little over-the-top, what a sociologist might call an "extreme-type," in order to emphasize the traits that make them different in a manner that's likely relevant for your project.

The persona's profile might include demographic characteristics, background experiences, habits, cultural or professional world views, biases and prejudices. Constructing a persona should make us think about what we know (or think we know) about what matters to this category of people, what are their desires and expectations around what we are doing?

We often prod ourselves by asking specific questions about the persona: what do they eat for breakfast? where do they go on vacation? what's the biggest thing that holds them back from success?

How To
  • First we draw up a catalog of key player roles (sometimes it's just the customer for whom we are designing, but often there will be numerous "stakeholders" - The people ultimately whose pain are we targeting; those who currently provide a service to them; the people who will get to decide on whether our tool gets used; the policy makers who need to be convinced to allow it; the funder or investor who will provide resources; those whose work and interests will be challenged by our idea; etc.
  • Second we conduct enough research to feel like we understand each category. Usually this means interviewing or observing multiple people in each category. The answer to how many interviews or observations we need to do is "when you start hearing repeated stories."
  • Third, we look for patterns among all the traits and behaviors we observed and use those to group similar people together.
  • Fourth, we name each cluster and create archetypical models of each, assigning traits and characteristics that distinguish the type. The archetype does not have to exist - perhaps no real person has exactly these traits, but the combo of traits defines the cluster.
  • And then we "interview" the archetype about issues specific to our design problem: what do they really want? what keeps them up at night? Whenever possible we use actual quotes from people we observed to illustrate these.
  • Make sure the whole team gets to know these characters. Design for them.
Build a Persona Template
What do we do with them?1

Designing for Ella instead of for an unrepresented litigant helps you cultivate empathy and gain some insight into how Ella sees the world. You are much more likely to design for her needs if you have her in mind.

Personas helps us remember who we are designing for and who we are not designing for. "How will this help Ella?" brings us back to what we are trying to accomplish.

A richly articulated persona helps team members to be working on the same problem and to be working with the same assumptions and the same data. The "real" person component anchors team members to a genuine consensus about what we are doing.

Personas give us something to "design against" and to make and explain decisions. They can also be used as a part of the iteration process, helping us to work through how different categories of users might respond to prototypes of our design.

How Are Personas Useful?

Designing for “Ella” instead of “GCs” helps us design for her needs not ours.
Personas keep us on track: "How will this help Ella?"
Personas help team members work on same problem with same assumptions and same data.
Personas give us something to "design against" and to make and explain decisions.
Personas can be used in the iteration process, helping us to work through how different categories of users might respond to prototypes of our design
How Do Personas Go Wrong and Get Misused

It's easy to slip into stereotyping when what you want to do is archetype. It's easy to "get cute" and just start adding on features (favorite TV show: Gilligan's Island) mindlessly. The mindlessness may be choosing a feature category that's irrelevant or just a distraction or by sloppy specification of a value in a way that takes up a lot of cognitive space without communicating much that's essential.


Keeping the human at the center of human centered design

One of the mantras of human centered design is "you are not the user." Good design addresses real needs or desires of real (other) people. One tool we use to keep our creative work centered on real people is the development of so-called "personas."

a persona is a fictional amalgam archetype extremetype

Personas are fictionalized amalgams built up from the observed attitudes, traits, and behaviors of real people. We often give them names but they are usually not individuals.

Examples in marketing, UI/UX design, product design, service design

Image: Chris A. first time user,

can be done informally or quite formally

The instructions we give here describe a rather rigorous methodology. Our purpose is more didactic than pedantic - we want to make clear the underlying philosophy - but in practice you will often follow a more expedited path to produce personas.

rigorous methodology lumping and splitting

The people for whom you design are, of course, all different. But you job as a designer is to recognize and discover commonalities among what they want and need, what motivates them, what thrills them. We foster this by "lumping and splitting." Lumping refers to putting things together in sets or categories and splitting refers to separating things and making distinctions. Creating personas involves lumping together many users into clusters we can name and then splitting, concentrating on the traits that separate the clusters.

what does an interview look like
clustering traits, labeling clusters
using your project to create a persona template

Building Perfect Personas
Service Design Tools Personas
Goltz, Shlomo. "A Closer Look At Personas: What They Are And How They Work" (Part 1)
"The Problem with Personas"