What Is a Persona? You Need to Know

Perhaps you’re new to the world of UX and curious about user personas; maybe you’ve got some experience under your belt, but you’re looking for a refresher; or you may have heard some talk about “buyer personas” and you’re wondering what’s up. This guide will cover what personas are, four main types of personas, and how to get the most out of your user personas.

Persona

Personas are a commonly used tool among UXers—though they certainly exist outside of the design world. Personas help to make the end user, customer, or target market a bit more real to the people and teams in charge of serving, reaching out to, and designing for these people.

By gathering information about your users and transforming it into a set of fact-based profiles, you can represent the very real needs and goals of your users in personal and engaging ways and keep your user at the heart of every design decision you make.

Ready to dive in? Let’s get started.

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1. What are personas and why do they matter?

A persona is a profile. A character sketch. An approximation of a segment of your product users or target market. If you think of them in terms of archetypes, personas require you to look at who your users actually are (or the kinds of users you would like to focus on) and create a set of archetypes for the broad profile any one of your users might fit at any given time.

While there is some argument against the effectiveness of personas as a tool in UX design (mainly due to their common, but avoidable, pitfalls), the value of placing your users front and center is clear:

Personas generate empathy; and empathy is essential to the DNA of UX design. Personas allow you to look at a personal representation of your users and come to a better understanding of what your real users’ needs and goals look like in real moments of their lives.

2. Four main types of personas

There are four main types of personas that we’ll cover here—two in more detail than the rest: buyer personas (aka: marketing personas), user personas (aka: design personas), proto-personas, and persona spectrums.

Let’s start with the two most commonly confused: user personas and buyer personas.

User personas vs. buyer personas

User personas (also known as design personas) and buyer personas (also known as marketing personas) are widely discussed and easily confused. So we’ll break it down with a simple definition of each type and their primary similarities and differences.

Buyer personas are based on market research and information about your existing customers for the primary purpose of differentiating marketing efforts by market segment. The research and analysis that goes into shaping the details of a buyer persona are all geared toward understanding the role your product plays in buyers’ lives. The goal is to focus your messaging so that you are representing your product in an accurate and appealing fashion for your target market. Buyer personas can also help shape the broad direction of product development if they uncover any particular problems that the product could potentially solve for buyers.

3. When and how to use personas

No matter what kind of personas you’re building, your most important job is to ensure that your personas accurately represent your users needs and goals—especially in the context of the product or features you’re looking to improve. This happens through rigorous user research, which is at the heart of the first stage of the UX design process: Empathize.

User personas are both:

  • A means of building empathy and defining user problems, and
  • A result of the Empathize and Define stages of the UX design process

Build your personas during the Empathize stage of the UX design process. This is a great way to distill research findings and help you and your team to really solidify those insights and prepare to define the problems you’ll tackle in the remaining stages of the process. As you build them, you’ll naturally generate empathy and do some of the work of the Define stage as you begin to see patterns and notice things you may have missed in your initial research.

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4. Tips for how to get the most out of your personas

There are four common pitfalls when designers or design teams use personas. It’s important to acknowledge these pitfalls, but also to emphasize that these are problems that occur when personas are implemented incorrectly—and that you can avoid them quite easily!

Here are our tips for how to avoid each pitfall and make the most of this powerful tool.

Tip #1: Get buy-in from people outside the design team (as well). If you or your team are the little persona island in the company, personas will be naturally limited in their effectiveness.

Pitch personas to leadership and help them to see how personas can create a unified vision of who you’re serving, greater empathy for those users and their needs, and ultimately, a more cohesive and user-centered product experience.

Tip #2: Cultivate a better understanding of what personas are and what they do. Personas shouldn’t be created, used once, and set on a shelf or hung on a wall as a vague ideal or goal.

Help your colleagues understand what personas are, how they might factor into each team’s process, and what the results might look like. After you’ve got a set of personas set up for a project, actively involve them in meetings and workshops and coach other teams to do the same!

Tip #3: Create or re-create unique personas for every project. Personas are not one-size fits all. You’ll create a set of personas with a specific aspect of the product in mind. This focus will determine the kind of data you use, the teams you involve, and every detail of the personas you create. If you use the same set of personas for every project from now until the end of time, your personas could miss the mark.

5. How to create a user persona

Whether you’re sticking with a traditional user persona or enriching that practice with persona spectrums, the starting point will always be user research. User research is your window into the worlds of the people who use your product; it’s where you’ll learn when and how they interact with your product, what that experience is like, and what factors you’ve overlooked that might impact that experience. This is where you discover ways to create better user experiences—which, for UXers, is kind of the point!

If you’d like to learn more about user research, CareerFoundry’s free UX Research for Beginners Course is a great place to start.

From there, you’ll work with your team to organize and interpret your findings into whatever deliverables (including personas!) you’ve decided will be most useful going forward.

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