A divisive tool among practitioners, personas can bring the perspective of your end users into the design process and help build consensus among stakeholders.
In my experience as an interaction designer I have come across many strategies and approaches to help increase the quality and consistency of my work, but none is more misunderstood or misused than the persona.
Personas have been in use since the mid ‘90s, and have gained widespread awareness within the design community. As for adoption, many say they use personas, but few designers I’ve met actually use them as a part of their core creative process. Those who do use personas often implement them infrequently.
For every designer who actually utilizes personas, I have found that there are even more who strongly oppose them—finding personas useless or even detrimental to their design work. I once felt this way, too, seeing personas as a silly distraction from the real work at hand. That all changed when I witnessed them being used properly to their full potential.
I started using them in my own work and something interesting happened: my process became more efficient and fun, while the fruits of my labor became more impactful and useful to others. Never before had I seen such a boost in clarity, productivity, and success in my own work. Personas can supercharge your work too and help you take your designs to the next level.
How Personas Were Developed
Personas were informally developed by Alan Cooper in the early ‘80s as a way to empathize with and internalize the mindset of people who would eventually use the software he was designing. Cooper interviewed several people who were in the intended audience of a project he was working on and got to know them so well that he pretended to be them as a way of brainstorming and evaluating ideas from their perspective. This method-acting technique allowed Cooper to put users front-and-center in his design process as he created software for others.
This method-acting technique let @MrAlanCooper put users front-and-center in his design process
As Cooper moved from creating software himself to consulting, he quickly discovered that to be successful he needed a way to help clients to see the world from his perspective, which was informed directly by a sample set of intended users. This need to inform and persuade clients led him to formalize personas into a concrete deliverable to communicate his user-centered knowledge to those that did not do the research themselves. The process of developing personas and the way in which they are utilized today has evolved, but the premise remains the same: a deep understanding of your users is fundamental to creating exceptional software.
What Are Personas?
Cooper’s design methodologies have evolved into a subset of user-centered design he has branded Goal-Directed Design. Goal-Directed design combines new and old methodologies from ethnography, market research, and strategic-planning, among other fields, in order to simultaneously address business needs, technological requirements (and limitations), and user goals. Personas are a core component of Goal-Directed Design. I have found that understanding the fundamentals of this goal directed approach to design first helps one understand and properly utilize personas.
In the summer of 2011, I was fortunate enough to intern at Cooper, which is where I got to learn (among other things), how to use personas. Here I discovered that although personas were easy to understand conceptually, it takes a significant investment of time to master their use with finesse and precision. Everyone on the team (and even the clients) referred to personas by name in almost every discussion, critique, and work session we had. Personas weren't just created and then forgotten, they were living, breathing, characters that permeated everything we did. I saw that personas are an essential part of the Goal-Directed Process.
The major takeaway was that personas, though important, are never used in isolation, but rather implemented in conjunction with other processes, concepts, and methods that support and augment their use.
The Essential Components of Goal-Directed Design
As we’ve discussed, a persona is an archetypal model that communicates research patterns about a type of user in the present. A persona is depicted as a specific person, but is not a real individual—personas are synthesized from observations of many people. Though a persona is usually presented as a "one-pager" it’s more than just a deliverable, it’s a way to communicate and summarize research trends and patterns to others. It is this fundamental understanding of users, which is important, and not the document itself.
This is the objective (or objectives) that a persona wants or needs to fulfill by using software. The software aids the persona in accomplishing these end-goal(s) by enabling the persona to accomplish their tasks via features.
This is a narrative that describes how a persona would interact with software in a particular context to achieve his or her end-goal(s). Scenarios are written from the persona’s perspective, at a high level, and articulate use cases that are likely to happen in the future.
What are Persons Used for?
Personas can and should be used throughout the creative process, and can be utilized by all parts of a software development and design team, and even entire companies.
When designers create personas, they are crafting the lenses through which they will see the world through. With persona glasses on, it’s possible to gain a similar perspective to that of a user. From this vantage point, when designers make decisions, they do so with an internalization of a persona’s goals, needs, and wants.
Personas help define who the software is created for, and who will not be part of the focus. It’s important to have a clear target. For projects with more then one user type, a list of personas helps prioritize which users are more important than others. Just by defining who your users are, it makes it more apparent that you can’t design for everyone, or at least not everyone at once—or you risk designing for no one. This helps avoid “The Elastic User," in which the definition of the user is one singular body that morphs as the perspectives of those creating the software also change.
Communication and Forming Consensus
More often than not, designers work on a multidisciplinary teams with people with vastly different expertise, knowledge, experience, and perspective. As a deliverable document, personas help communicate research findings to those who were not able to be a part of user interviews. Creating a medium for shared knowledge allows all members of a team to get on the same page. When all members have a shared understanding of their users, it makes building consensus on important issues that much easier as well.
Making and Defending Decisions
Just as utilizing personas helps prioritize who to design for, it also helps determine what to design for them. When one sees the world from their user’s perspective, it becomes a lot easier to determine what is useful, and what is an edge case. When a design choice is brought into question, defending it based on real data and research about users (represented by a persona), is often the best way to persuade and convince others to see the logical and user-focused reasoning behind the design.
Personas can be stand-in proxies for users when budget or time doesn’t allow for people to take part in the iterative process. Various implementations of a design can be “tested” using a persona paired with a scenario in a similar way as a design is tested with real users. If someone impersonating a persona can not figure out how to use a feature or gets frustrated, chances are the users they represent may have a difficult time as well.
Now that personas have been defined, and some high level use cases have been presented for their use, hopefully you are inspired, and already thinking of ways in which you could use personas in your own projects. It’s not an exaggeration to say that personas can be utilized in all stages of the creative process—from the fuzzy front-end of coming up with and framing ideas in the first place to documenting software that is ready for public consumption. Once you have a deep and meaningful understanding of your users, there is no limit to what that empathetic perspective can help accomplish.