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The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Personas, Part 1

Leah Cunningham User Experience Consultant

Personas are one of the most important tools in the UX toolkit. They can inspire, create empathy and spawn wonderful new ideas and solutions. They can also create concern and confusion if you’re not clear on how they should be used.

We get a lot of similar questions and concerns about personas so here is a quick-guide to what personas are, and what they are NOT.

First of all, why are personas useful?

Personas are great to help to focus on the needs of the actual people who will be engaging with you, your products and your services. They help to avoid assumption-based decisions that are clouded by personal bias and they help to prevent designing for everyone.

When you design for everyone, you design for no one.

What personas are:

  • They are representations of a target user, typically based on needs, tasks and behaviours

Whilst marketing teams will create segments of customers based on things like demographics and purchasing behaviour, personas are typically used to represent someone who belongs to a group of people with a similar set of needs, tasks and online behaviours. It’s important that we focus on these things with our personas to make sure we are enabling users to do the things they want to do, in a way that is easy for them.

The demographic information given to a persona usually serves as ‘window dressing’ to help build a picture of a real-life person to build empathy. Things like the suburb your persona lives in, might not really have any impact on the actual design of the solution (of course, there are always exceptions to the rule).

  • They are based on research with real users

Why would you ask someone else what a person needs when you could just ask that person directly? If you can ask your customers what they need to inform your personas, ask them, not someone else. Customer facing staff are the next best option if for some reason you just absolutely can’t speak to an actual customer.

  • They are a tool to guide your thinking

They are there to help guide you, not restrict you. If one of your existing personas doesn’t fit exactly into the scenario you need to design for, you don’t necessarily need to create another persona just to change a few characteristics. Tweak your personas when you need to - it’s okay.

What personas are NOT:

  • They are NOT a representation of all of your customers

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when creating and using personas is understanding that they are not meant to represent everyone. If one of your personas is aged 35 but you have customers who are 50, if they have the same needs, tasks and behaviours, it doesn’t matter how old they are - you don’t need a persona for everyone!

  • They are NOT set in stone

As technology changes and your organisation changes, so too will your customers change. Personas should be reviewed and updated as required.

  • They are NOT the answer to all of your problems

They will not cover every possible scenario, but they will help to guide you in the right direction. They will not test your designs for you, but they will help you to sense-check your design before heading out to test with real customers. They are not an excuse not to speak to your real customers.