June 21, 2016

How to Create and Apply User Personas in Design Projects

How to Create and Apply User Personas in Design Projects

If you’re kicking off a website, mobile app, or software project, chances are you’re not building it for your own enjoyment. There’s a reason you’re investing time and money, and perhaps even sanity, to build and design a solution. The purpose of your project is to provide value to your customers. But how do you know what your users are truly looking for? The answer is user personas.

A persona is a representation of a user, typically created based upon research to identify user goals, needs, behaviors, and interests. Sounds easy, right? Not so fast. There are many different types of personas, and they have many different uses. It’s easy to get lost in the hype and end up with personas that sit inside of a presentation deck, growing old and moldy from lack of use. Well, no more.

In this blog we will discuss user personas for website, mobile app, or software projects. Here’s what you need to know to create and apply these user personas to build successful applications:

There are three types of user personas

Marketing personas: Through extensive audience research, you are able to identify demographics, buying motivations, and media habits to define customer behavior. The purpose of a marketing persona is to determine what types of customers will be receptive to certain messages or products, or for evaluating potential ROI of product. They do not, however, define a product or service – what it is, how it works, and how it’s used – or for prioritizing features in a product or service.

Proto-personas: These are the user profiles that are based on educated guesses. These profiles are typically not ideal, however, they help when you’re on a conservative budget or have tight time constraints.

Design personas: These personas are created in the early stages of project planning to define the architecture, functions, and basic infrastructure of the website, mobile app, or software application. Well-crafted design personas should include goals, behaviors, and pain points of your users. However, this data isn’t collected based on educated guesses or extensive market research administered behind a screen. It’s done with real people, in real life situations, and it’s verified by those same people to make sure that each persona is a thorough and accurate reflection of the user group.

Traits of a good design persona

You know what type of persona you’re going to create, but how do you know if the personas you’ve created are going to be effective? There are three key traits to consider when creating your design persona.

Recognizable patterns observed in research: If there’s a trend happening among a majority of your users, pay attention, because the data actually means something! By identifying and designing to observed behavior patterns, you’ll be creating features and functionality that are more likely to garner user acceptance, which will ultimately drive higher rates of user adoption.

Keep it realistic and finite: Your users are real people with their own opinions, needs, and wants. No matter how much you want them to want something, they’re going to think, feel, see, and do it their own way. When you start thinking about what you want, you lose sight of what your customers care about. Clearly define what your customers care about, and be as specific as possible. The details in their needs and desires are what will make or break the effectiveness of your user personas.

Helps understand your users: A good persona gives detailed insights to your users’ everyday life by defining their needs and identifying the challenges they face. By truly empathizing with your users’ motivations and goals, you are able to intuit how they feel and stay true to their needs over time.

Essentials for creating your personas

Every design persona starts with an outline of the following:

Motivators: First, identify the user’s job title and role. It’s a good idea to include a quote that reflects what gets them up in the morning to go to work. Ask questions like, ‘what are they trying to accomplish in their role?’ or ‘What matters to them in their job?’ The answers to these questions will help you pinpoint each user’s unique motivators and will give you a better idea of what they care about.

Behaviors: Second, define the day-to-day behaviors of your user. What do they do in their roles? What events happen that create interaction between either customers and/or employees? What technologies are they using on a daily basis? These questions will help you understand what potential challenges they face, how they communicate, and give you an overall sense of what their days are like.

Needs: Third, be as specific about your users’ needs as possible. Consider the data you’ve compiled from their behaviors to determine what they need to accomplish their goals. This information will help you in determining the core functionalities of your website, mobile app, or software project that are most important.

A real user to test these attributes against: Finally, educated guesses are great – but that’s all it is – a guess. You need to talk to real people to get real accurate data. Gasp! Does this mean you have to actually talk to someone? Yes. It does. We’ll tell you the right questions to ask in the next section.

Example of a Good User Persona

Break out and map the needs of your users

After you’ve cross-checked the elements of your user persona with real users, the next step is to identify and break down their needs into components you can use to create solutions. Map each solution to a specific page or feature.

Here’s an example of how we broke down our user, Asha’s, needs to create specific pages and features:

Example of How We Broke Down Our User Persona

Verify with users

First and foremost, don’t show them the persona you have created! It’d be kind of strange to see someone else’s interpretation of you. However, ask questions about their daily interactions and preferences and compare the information you’ve included in your persona to the information they provide you. Bonus points if they are willing to look at a sketch of your proposed solution to see if you’re headed in the right direction!

Break out the needs

Once you have verified your personas and their needs, it’s time to use the mapping to guide the implementation of your project. From content to wireframes to interactions, you should be able to prioritize and apply the needs and solutions from the mapping exercise to the actual structure of the application. In the case below, we are applying the needs and solutions to a website sitemap:

Applying Personas to a Website Sitemap
Applying Personas to a Website Sitemap

How to test with users

Testing the structure of the application is critical to the success of launch. It’s important to verify that the structure makes sense to the user, otherwise you could be setting yourself up for failure before you even begin coding.

Note that users are intimidated by the testing process, so there are a few things to keep in mind when testing with them:

  • Keep it as low fidelity as possible: Do not show them any inkling of design and use paper to demonstrate the simple wireframe interactivity. As long as the basic structure makes sense to them, it’s a viable solution.
  • Prep your users: Let me know beforehand that there are no wrong answers. Ask them to speak their mind, even if it seems silly or inconsequential. Every bit of feedback makes a difference, and you (the business) are there to listen to it.
  • Record the session: You don’t want to miss anything in these testing sessions. Recording video would be ideal, but if audio is the only option, make use of what you have.


Take the feedback gathered from the user testing session and adjust where it’s necessary. If the adjustments are substantial, it would be a good idea to hold another user testing session to validate the changes.

Once the design has been implemented, show the users what they’ve helped you create! It’s important that they see where their feedback was considered and how it helped you build a crucial piece to your business.

Relentlessly improve

It’s important to continuously keep the evolution of your user personas in check. Businesses are not static, so there’s a good chance your user personas will change over time. There are specific times when it may be time to revisit your beloved personas:

New services or features are created: Business is always looking for ways to expand, grow, and improve. If your company plans to roll out a new service or feature, you may need to add, update, or remove a user persona. Always make sure these are positive changes that encompass your target user base while allowing for growth.

A new marketing plan is devised: If your strategy is shifting, rebranding, changing the message, or looking to target a different demographic, it’s time to dust off your user personas again. If there are several changes to your personas, you may need to hold additional testing sessions.

Crafting effective user personas can get pretty sticky: If you’re feeling lost, don’t worry, we’ll help you out. Contact us. We would be happy to discuss your next website, mobile app, or software project.

Charmon Stiles

Written by Charmon Stiles

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