How to design lean personas for your UX strategy / by Gavin Lau

Creating personas is key to building a product with great user experience. But with UX projects being rolled out to customers quicker and leaner than ever, there’s not always time or budget for a complete user research phase.

But fear not! The lean persona is fast-becoming a popular alternative to traditional personas, as a lighter and less expensive way to perform user research throughout the design process.

In our post, we’ll explain what the lean persona is, when and why to implement it into your UX projects, as well as how to get started with your own lean persona template. So if you’re ready for better way to get user insights for your product, you need to read this post.

Let’s get started!

What is a lean persona?

A lean persona is basically a concise — or starter — version of the user persona. In UX design, we create user personas to determine our product’s target audience and visualize the user experience from their point of view.

Lean persona templates are used to get an idea of a target user group out to your team and stakeholders, and align everyone around the end user from the very beginning of each UX project.

Unlike user personas, which require deep user research by a key individuals, market competition and an extensive persona report, lean personas aren’t based on real data. Instead, these early personas are created using research cadences and involve the whole team.

Lean persona templates are generally created in alignment with Lean UX, a solution-based approach to design thinking that aims to provide value while avoiding waste. In accordance with the lean UX philosophy, lean personas help to bring products to light faster and with fewer resources.

Learn more about designing UX in lean environments with Jeff Gothelf here.

When to use lean persona templates

When used appropriately, lean personas can be extremely beneficial to project definition and the strategic planning of a website or app interface. So when does a UX project call for creating lean user personas?

Here are three scenarios when creating lean user persona templates makes sense:

  • When doing rapid product development — to get design, development and the client on the same page fast

  • When you’re on a budget. If this is your only type of persona definition, make sure your personas are backed up by existing usability data and analytics

  • When performing a website redesign — to help you draft your design assumptions

Remember, light persona definition is better than skipping them altogether. Without persona creation, you risk misunderstandings early on in the design process, which could snowball into a much larger problem further down the line.

The problem with user personas

UX and Agile consultant and coach, Adrian Howard’s video on lean personasis a great point of reference for anyone starting out with lean personas. In it, Adrian talks about the need for lean personas and why regular user personas aren’t always such a good idea.

To summarize, he explains that nowadays we are doing more rapid development, exploring more options and earlier in the design process and delivering more often through iterative design. With these new approaches to product design and development, the way we perform user research is changing, and user persona definition is also updating.

Adrian mentions five core problems with user personas:

  • Personas are presented as truth — sometimes user research findings are inaccurate, data changes or research wasn’t complete enough. When personas are taken as gospel, teams rely too much on them and not enough on other key project information, such as user feedback on wireframes

  • They require a large up-front investment of time, money and people. The cost-benefit doesn’t always add up

  • They need a fairly good grasp of our market — and remember, the market is always changing!

  • They tend to result in set-and-forget persona (even though software and products are constantly changing)

  • Introducing products changes the world, therefore changing user expectations and behavior and running the risk of turning your personas into ‘zombie’ personas

In contrast, lean persona templates communicate risk and confidence, rather than truth, let you get started quickly and cheaply, and can easily be modified as needed.

How to design lean persona templates

Getting started

Depending on the level of ‘lean’ you’re going for, you can start creating your persona skeleton in one of two ways:

  • Make it up using empathy maps — get your team in a room, discuss different kinds of product users and create empathy maps to visualize that information. Note that with this method, you’ll want to work with team members who have had contact with potential customers in the past

  • Perform basic user testing (e.g. online research, analysis of the competition or quick user interviews, focused around specific problems)

As Adrian Howard reminds us, the point of this early step is to get alignment at the start of the project. What you’re all aligning around can be corrected at a later stage of persona development if need be.

Once you’ve got your adhoc persona (with dummy or real data), you can start sketching out your skeleton persona. This should include only the basic information that your team needs to think about the problem that your product intends to solve. Your lean personas should include a name and photo (or Sketch), job title, goals and needs, behaviors, attributes and pain points.

Refining your persona template

The next step is essential: refining your persona.

This is an important part in lean persona creation as it not only allows you to add structure to your personas, it also forces you to revisit your earlier research, perhaps adding or removing information that has since changed or is no longer relevant to your product.

Adrian Howard’s suggests categorizing persona facts via color, to help you prioritize pain points. You could also use conditional clauses and rules to identify user behavioral patterns.

This step should be repeated as often as needed, in order to ensure that your lean personas, although light, remain accurate. As Adrian Howard reminds us, the biggest trap in design is not UX doing the research and over-estimating your confidence.

Realigning your persona template

It’s important to revisit your personas on a regular basis in order to reassess your users’ expectations, and perhaps whether your users have changed. Ongoing user research throughout your UX project will allow you to continuously realign your persona descriptions, merge personas or perhaps even uncover characteristics of an additional persona.

Checking up on your personas will also avoid you creating “set and forget” or zombie personas, and keep your UX project focused around the right information.

From lean persona template to wireframe

Once you’ve established a healthy lean persona process, it’s time to start mapping out your design using user scenarios and wireframes.

Start by creating a low-fidelity wireframe and build the basic structure and UI layout of your site or app. Then, create user scenarios to define the user flow between screens. With Justinmind, you can do both at the same time.

3 lean persona templates


Lean persona template 1

Here’s an example of a basic lean user persona. It includes some basic information about the team’s target persona, such as the persona’s job title, demographic, environment, capabilities, attitude and interactions.

This style of lean persona requires very little design work, and can be whipped up on the computer, modified and duplicated easily.

However, information isn’t as easy to pick out (if you have multiple personas or personas that need to be shared with several team members may slow down user research — making your persona less lean!).


Lean persona template 2

Example 2 takes a more traditional look at lean personas. Expressed visually, this example gives the persona context and making the information more reader-friendly. When working with multiple personas, this style will help you compare behavioral patterns and pain pints more quickly.


Lean persona template 3

What we like most about this lean persona template is the amount of detail (e.g. names of cities where Mary lives and works). Although it’s not recommended to use real users in persona creation, be making your persona specific your team will be able to empathize with them.

Conclusion: designing a lean persona template

We create personas to bring the end user into the process of determining our project’s objectives. This is the only way to ensure that our product serves a purpose. But with project development becoming more rapid and iterative, our persona process can’t always keep up.

Designing lean personas is a solid way to introduce user at the very beginning of your UX project. Keeping research light helps to bring your team and client together and develop assumptions about the user with transparency and confidence.

The key to successful implementation of lean personas is to keep at it. Refinement and realignment of personas will ensure that you’re always at the cutting edge of the market and that your designs are moving in the right direction.