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User Personas: One of the Best Tools for Understanding Your Customers

Genevieve Conti
Genevieve Conti / March 22, 2017

Have you ever tried to buy a gift for someone you didn’t know very well? It’s pretty darn tough. What do they like? What’s their shoe size? What are their favorite foods? Without some information about them, you’re probably more likely to get them a gift they don’t really want or need. Business is kind of the same way. The less you know about your customers or users, the harder it will be to deliver products and services that really solve their problems and make them happy.

Personas are one great tool for giving everyone on your team a better understanding of who your customers are and what they really want. We’ll walk through how to approach user personas, how to build them and, most importantly, how to keep them relevant.

Create the Right Conditions

"You have to want to be a user-centered organization for personas to work"- Ed Morrissey, partner and chief creative officer at Integrity

At their most basic level, user personas give your team an idea of the different groups or segments of people you target, what their motivations are, and what they need from your product or service so that everyone can make more user-focused decisions.

You could have the most detailed personas, but if they don’t help your team make better decisions for customers, they might as well be art on the walls.

To make sure your personas aren't just pretty profiles, they need to exist within a user-centered design culture, says Ed Morrissey, partner and chief creative officer at digital agency Integrity.

“The biggest point that I always make is that it’s a paradigm shift,” Morrissey says. “A lot of orgs take an org-centered approach: ‘Here’s my website. Here’s who I am. Here’s how I’m organized. Here’s what I do.’ User-centered design flips that it on its head: ‘Who am I talking to, what do they want.’ You have to want to do that. You have to want to be a user-centered organization [for personas to work].”

How to Develop User Personas

user persona example
Example user persona (image via Xtensio)

Start with conversations.

Building personas can be a long and involved process, and figuring out where to begin can seem overwhelming, but there’s one simple way to kickstart the process: have conversations.

“Verbal data gathering is the first step,” Morrissey says. “Who are your users? Ask the CEO, the marketing people, everyone.”

Questions you should help you identify:

  • Why are people using your system, product or service? What are their end goals–the objectives they want to achieve with your product or service?
  • What behaviors, assumptions, and expectations might affect how they think about those things?
  • What are their pain points and motivations?
  • How, when, and where do they use your product or service?

Even if you’ve been at your organization for a while, what comes out of these conversations might surprise you, so don’t skip this step.

Collect data to fill in the blanks.

Once you start having conversations about who your users are and what they want, you’ll begin to collect both questions and assumptions. For example, someone might say “It’s my impression that customers like this feature because it helps them do X more quickly” or “We notice a lot of people call the support desk about X, but we’re not sure why.”

The questions and assumptions you collect will leave you with a lot of gaps to fill in. Set out to gather whatever qualitative and quantitative data you can get your hands on: data from analytics tools, usability tests, ethnographic research, user interviews, customer calls and surveys, support desk tickets–anything that can help you start connecting dots.

Segment to spot patterns.

By now you’re probably (hopefully!) drowning in data. Now what?

Try segmenting and filtering data to spot trends in how people behave and use your product or service.

Aurora Harley, user experience specialist with Nielsen Norman Group, uses bounce rate as an example. Segmenting by new users versus returning users in an analytics tool for your website might allow you to see that new users, who get to your blog posts using relevant queries on search engines, are bouncing at a high rate, maybe indicating that there is a mismatch between the content users expect from search engine results and the content they’re getting.

Quantitative analytics tools can alert you to certain trends, and then it’s time to use more qualitative methods like interviews, observation, and surveys to investigate why the behavior is happening and the attitudes around that behavior.

You could also segment by focusing on the tasks people are trying to complete or “jobs to be done.”

“Jobs to be done removes the persona from the entire task and focuses on what needs to be done and how you’re going to accomplish it,” Morrissey says. So before you develop a persona for a millennial working at Panera, you’d instead start with a job like “add a credit card to the system.” There are many types of Panera workers who need to accomplish that task, not just millennials.

You could stop there, or you could go further to define the different users who need to accomplish that task and might think about it differently.

“It certainly doesn’t make any sense to create personas that bear no relation to a meaningful and accurate segmentation exercise,”writes Ian Williams, founder of Jericho Consulting. “Segmentation validates the identity of homogeneous customer groups, whereas personas help to then enrich those identities for other purposes.”

Create a snapshot, not a novel.

Personas will look different for every team and every project. The most important thing, though, is that they’re short, sweet, and easy to digest for quick, clear decision making.

“If you begin to feel like you’re profiling someone for a murder investigation then maybe rein it back a bit,” writes Roisin Mc Cormack, marketing manager for DesignPro Ltd. “Any member of your team should be able to look at this document for 1 minute and absorb all the main information. If they can’t understand who this person [or what this segment] is and what motivates them, then you’ve done something wrong.”

How to Maintain and Iterate on Personas

After spending so much time and effort creating effective personas, the last thing you want is for them to languish on a wall or in a shared folder somewhere.

“Many teams create personas during the initial ideation and design phase of a project, but then fail to leverage them beyond settling design debates,” Harley writes.

Find ways to incorporate personas into routine activities.

“One method of incorporating personas into the ongoing maintenance of a website is to create persona-inspired segments in your analytics tool,” Harley says. “These segments can not only check whether the user described in a persona is characteristic of your website’s real visitors, but can also help you uncover patterns of use and trends in behavior that would otherwise be masked when lumping together the data for all visitors to the site.”

Evangelizing personas is important as well, Morrissey says, and part of that includes making sure personas are useful to everyone who affects the user experience, like content strategists, for example. “Say we’re working on a Snapchat-based experience. If the content is written for 70-year-old, then experience falls flat.”

With your team, agree on how you’ll use personas and how they get updated when you find new information that affects personas so they stay relevant and actionable.


Using effective personas to make decisions is just like shopping for the perfect gift for your oldest friend. Finding the gift might take some time and effort, but you’re armed with all the right information to get them something they really want or need. When you’re close with someone, you know when their hobbies and interests change, so you can keep surprising them with gifts that delight them. They’re happy. You’re happy. Everybody wins.

Title photo by rawpixel.com via Unsplash

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