Personas - the definitive guide

by Yeevon Ooi on 30 April 2010


Conducting user research can produce some amazing insights... but how do you communicate these findings to the rest of your team? This is where personas can step in. Personas, when used effectively can communicate the results of user research in ways that means the results are taken into account throughout the design/development cycle.

Why have personas?

The first step for a user centred design process is to conduct user research. Through this you can learn about your users - their behaviour, attitudes and needs. The problem is once you get all this lovely, useful rich data, how do you communicate it across to the rest of the design/development team? One popular option available to you is personas.

Personas are a common technique used to communicate findings from user research in a simple and accessible manner. They're very useful as they can communicate this information quickly and (if done well) in a fun way that will stick with the design/development team through the rest of the process, ensuring the user research is taken into account throughout the course of the project.

The popularity of personas comes from the personalisation of the user research data. It puts a 'real' face onto the sometimes rather dry results from user research.

What are personas?

Personas are essentially made-up people, based on the data generated by user research conducted previously.

There should be at least one persona to represent each major segment of your users. The word major is used as ideally you should be using 3-5 personas, and with most sites there are a lot more user groups. Each of the personas should have their own personality and be memorable - put too many in front of people and they start to all blur into one. Any more than 5 personas and people often start to feel overwhelmed.

What information should be in personas?

Personas take a variety of shapes and sizes. The information they contain will be entirely dependent on the user research on which the personas are based, what information is needed by the design/development team and how the personas will be used.

Most personas contain a description, picture and some summary of their needs/goals:

  • Pictures are particularly useful as they help people to visualise the persona, to make it seem real. They also help designers/developers empathise with the personas more easily.
  • A description gives a brief summary of the persona, which often contains demographic information (sometimes going into surprisingly large amounts of detail). The description might include (among other information) their job, their technology, any pressures they're under and the situation they're in when they use the system/site.
  • Needs, goals & features can either be a straight list for each persona, or a table comparing each persona against each possible need/feature/goal. This can help define a priority list for features (or the needs from which to develop features) before development starts.

Personas may contain a whole variety of other pieces of information, including:

A 'quote' from the persona
This should summarise their needs/goals into a single sentence. This can be a double edged sword, as this single sentence runs the risk of oversimplifying the personas issues. Quotes do have the added advantage of giving the personas further personality.
These are issues that the persona encounters, either with the existing system or because there's no existing system. These can clarify to designers/developers exactly what the biggest issues this persona faces.
Ideal features
This is very similar to features, but with no restrictions placed on their feasibility... these may be impossible to produce, but sometimes help designers/developers think of alternative approaches that are more realistic.
'Need to know'
Any information the persona needs when trying to do their goal. These help designers/developers understand the key information needed to communicate to users.
These are the typical behaviours the persona exhibits. They're usually only shown if the personas different behaviours lead to different needs/requirements of the system in development.
These are sample use cases the persona may do. They can be based on either their goals or their use of an existing system. This can clarify exactly how a system will be/is used.

What do I do with personas?

The whole purpose of personas is to communicate user research, and ensure it's remembered and used throughout the project lifetime. In order for this to happen, the personas must be adopted by the design/development team. Exactly how this adoption is done varies from company to company. The most common solution is to put up posters of the personas, after introducing the personas to the design/development team for the first time. Any way that increases the profile of the personas is a good idea; one company produced quick referral 'flash cards' for its staff so they could refer to the personas whenever they went.

There are more... alternative methods. Another company produced full size cut outs of its personas - even putting aside seats in meetings for them!

It'll be clear when the personas have been adopted when people start referring to them on first names, "Dave wouldn't want to do that"... and others don't ask who Dave is.

After the personas are adopted, the design/development team should be able to design and build for the personas, as their 'users'. In doing so, they'll design and build taking into account the earlier user research the personas are based on without even realising.


Personas are a great way to distil user research into easily understood, bitesize forms. They can include a variety of information, tailored to the particular project and the team's needs.

However in order to be any use, they must be adopted and used. If they fade into the background, or are only attended to for the meeting they're introduced, then all the effort/money put into the user research and creating the personas is lost.

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