How to Create More Usable, Robust User Personas

Before starting any design or development project, it’s crucial to know and define precisely who the service is being designed for. User Personas are a great way of documenting these key audiences, their needs, context, frustrations and motivations for using your product or service. However, often User Personas are constructed based on half-truths, assumptions and biased perspectives, either from the researcher creating them or the company who requires them.

In this post, I explore how to avoid these biases to create more robust, data-informed and representative User Personas.

What are User Personas and why do we need them?

Often a website or service will have multiple audiences it needs to cater to. Let’s take a bank for example. A bank will typically cater to a wide range of audiences - from those researching their next current account, to those looking for a loan or perhaps a business looking for an account managed service. Each of these audiences will have completely different motivations for visiting the bank’s website or local branch. So, in order to create a website or experience that meets these needs, it’s vital to have a very clear, documented account of each audience and their needs.

User Personas act as a tool to cluster together a range of observations and truths about our key audiences. They are normally one-page documents that include information about the user’s needs (sometimes expressed as goals), their context, any frustrations that may have using your product or service (or in the market more generally) and requirements from your product or service. They should be developed with the intention that all project stakeholders adopt them and design according to their needs (more on this shortly).

Why User Personas are so important

Done correctly, User Personas are a brilliant tool for building shared consensus from key stakeholders about the overall purpose and vision for the service you’re designing. Done badly, User Personas can result in designing to solve problems that aren’t representative of users’ real world experience, or worse still, reflect the cultural biases or silos of the organisation. Let’s explore some of the causes and issues in more detail.

Common issues with User Personas

Issue 1: User Personas haven’t been informed by rigorous research

I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to work with some great organisations that have been keen advocates of commissioning user and audience research. If you’re fortunate enough to work with an organisation that’s either commissioned first-party research already or is willing to invest in it, that’s fantastic. Rejoice. But (if like many) you are working with or within an organisation that doesn’t have the (perceived) time or money to invest in audience research, you have a job on your hands. But don’t despair, there are options (which I’ll cover shortly).

Solution: As a UX Designer or Researcher, it’s your job to represent the voice of the user. If budget is an issue, there are a tonne of ways you can find audience insights with relatively little overhead - just a little effort.

If you’re struggling to commission first-party audience research or don’t have access to any, I strongly recommend taking the time to do the following:

  1. Talk to people in the organisation you’re designing for: from executives to customer-facing staff. Each will have important insights into customer’s needs and expectations. While these aren’t a replacement for speaking to users, they are still deeply valuable and critical to ensuring business needs are accounted for. Dig deeply and always try to uncover the problem that's behind every problem.

  2. Look at customer reviews in detail: reviews can give you great insight into aspects of the overall User or Brand Experience that are both positive and negative. Mine whatever reviews you can find, be it on Google, TripAdvisor, Facebook, TrustPilot or wherever is relevant.

  3. Conduct keyword research using tools like SEMRush or Keywords Everywhere to get an idea of the types of questions and desires users have in relation to your brand, service or market. It’s honestly a goldmine, and critically important when it comes to designing an IA that’s both user and search-friendly.

  4. Dig deeply into ‘Audience’ reports in Google Analytics for descriptive data about the composition of your website’s audience. Create Advanced Segments to explore what different demographics do on the site; the content they consume, the actions they take.

  5. Consult Facebook Insights and Facebook Audience data to understand what else the audience is interested in - it’ll give you an idea of media consumption and brand affiliations the audience(s) have.

  6. Get access to the brand’s Social accounts to view what customers are saying in private messages. According to IBM, 88% of brand-customer communications are happening behind ‘closed doors’. Crack the door open and observe what’s going on.

Whatever your process, remember that there are a wealth of data sources you can access that don’t cost a penny. These should never be seen as a replacement for qualitative audience research, but are a great addition to your research that can add weight to your thinking.

Remember: be vigilant when it comes to incorporating the audience in your research, in whatever way you’re able to. After all, UX Design without user research isn’t really UX Design, it’s artworking.

Issue 2: User Personas lack clearly defined goals

I’ve worked on a number of UX projects when during the research phase, the client states the following, “Oh, we don’t need User Personas - we’ve already done those.” While my initial reaction is often “fantastic!”, I’ve found a lot of User Personas to be left wanting, and there’s one common thread through them all: they lack clearly defined user goals.

User Personas vs Audience segments

I believe this issue stems from a fundamental misunderstanding within organisations around the difference between Audience Segments and User Personas. What’s the difference? Often Audience Segments (like those you may have seen from the likes of Experian, for example) describe the broad characteristics of an audience and its financial, geographic or educational context. They can include things like attitudinal data as well as information around media consumption and internet usage.

They can be quite robust too, often being built from large national databases or panels. However, they are very often lacking in a clear articulation of what that audience might need from a product or service. For this reason, designing with audience segments as your sole reference point is incredibly difficult. 

By contrast, User Personas should always be tightly relevant to the product or service you’re designing for. While User Personas should have a clear description of the user’s context, their behaviours, frustrations and attitudes, they should also make it explicit what the user needs or wants from the product or wider market. What problem are they trying to solve? Make that the focus.

Solution: Audience segments can be incredibly helpful in the UX Design process in helping you understand the broad context a user may be in when approaching your product or service. However, given their lack of clear goals, they are a poor replacement for properly constructed User Personas. I would always, always recommend being crystal clear about the primary and secondary needs of end users when creating User Personas.

Let’s take a look at an example of why specificity is so crucial when creating User Personas. If you are redesigning the logged-in area for a pension provider for instance, your User Personas should detail precisely the core needs each audience has in relation to this aspect of the service. Say you have a “I want to access my money’ User Persona, they’ll have very specific needs that are quite distinct from someone who is 20 years from retirement and looking to check in on how pension is doing.

Use User Personas in a precise and goal-oriented manner and you’ll be able to design better products and services that meet user and customer intent.

Issue 3: User Personas were created in a silo

Despite the fact we live in an increasingly interconnected world, it’s surprising how many organisations remain structured in silos. When an organisation's customer-facing elements (like sales, marketing or customer service teams) are segmented from one another, which they often are, it can be very difficult to create strong, consistent User and Customer Experiences. In such organisations, the website can become a battleground for control, as opposed to something that’s designed to suit clearly articulated user needs that span departments and functions.

User Personas can actually be an incredibly powerful way of overcoming some of the challenges associated with siloed thinking within an organisation. In order for this to be the case and for User Personas to take hold, they must be created with input from all stakeholders (including, of course, end users).

I have run User Personas & Goals workshops in the past with a team of a dozen stakeholders, each responsible for an aspect of the website, who have never (or rarely) spoken to each other about the website’ role in meeting customer’s needs. That’s both scary from a user’s perspective, and worryingly common from a business perspective.

Solution: Creating User Personas in conjunction with stakeholders across the business is critical to developing an output that’s both informed by front-line experience and has organisational buy-in. User Personas aren’t the only way to achieve this. I’ve always used empathy mapping as a way of gathering insight from a diverse project team, among other methods. The point is that to ensure your User Personas are indeed usable, be sure to include a range of stakeholders in your process to understand the diversity of needs across the organisation.

If you have any questions about the role of User Personas in UX Design or would like the help of an experienced UX Strategist to orient your team around your users, feel free to drop me a line.