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Developing personas and keeping them relevant

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

At Aptitude Software I have led a significant piece of work on personas to bring a richer understanding of our end users to the software development teams and the wider business. Our focus until recently has been on Marketing focused personas - namely buyers of our software, and not the end users.

The design team are currently creating user personas to help guide the product strategy and build. ​I thought it would be helpful to spend some time (re)introducing the concept of personas, why they are important, how we make them, and how we use them​.

Having a deep understanding of our users is fundamental to creating exceptional products. ​Personas help to answer to one of our most important questions, “Who are we making this product for?” ​By understanding the expectations, concerns and motivations of our users, it is more likely that we will build a product that will satisfy their needs and therefore be successful.​

It doesn’t matter if you are an architect, a developer, designer, tester, content designer, BA, SME or Product Owner. Eventually, whatever you are making is going to affect the end user regardless of the levels of abstraction between the user interface and the underlying layers of requirements and code.​

Understanding the user experience is as important for the whole product team as it is for a UX designer. ​

Personas can be intrinsically linked to the success of a product because they drive strategic decisions by taking common user needs and bringing them to the forefront of planning before we even think about designing.​

At their core, personas help us create products with a specific, not generic, user in mind. ​

Using personas to inform the direction of a product or service will ensure we keep the user at the heart of all our decision making.​ Personas tap into our humanity because they anthropomorphise research findings – they make data human, and thus, easier for us to relate to: ​When hundreds of users are represented by a persona, imagining what they would do is a lot easier than pouring over cold, hard, abstract data. ​(Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology)​.

When can we use personas?

Throughout the whole product lifecycle​!​

  1. In concept and product development, to maintain focus on the users throughout the entire development process. The personas can be integrated directly into our processes, in user stories, in preparing test scenarios and in concept testing. A lot of companies use them for requirement specification which is something we will be doing for Alpha.​

  2. As a strategic tool. Personas can guide strategic decisions regarding user groups – will X feature be useful to X user? We are able to identify primary user groups and groups that are either secondary groups or not to be addressed. ​

  3. They are used for recruitment of users for usability tests, interviews, and focus groups, and for preparing test scenarios and questionnaires.​

  4. Personas will offer us a common communication platform. This ensures that discussions are based on a common understanding of the user and not based on pre-existing understanding of and personal experience with the users.​

  5. It provides a qualified understanding of the users. Personas communicate data and therefore increases the internal knowledge about the users. Personas can shift focus from the well-known users to the lesser known, thus ensuring that the target groups that the company knows less about are also included in the deliberations of the projects.​

  6. They can focus and validate the final product. By including the users early on in the process, there will be fewer unused features built (for example an idea that an internal stakeholder might be personally convinced about), and more focused solutions for the tasks that users actually face​

  7. Personas creates documentation and argumentation for specific solutions. To be able to refer to a specific persona and the underlying data is part of supporting the choice of one solution over another. We should argue on behalf of our personas and their needs, not our own.​

  8. It supports working across departments. Especially in larger organisations, personas can contribute to abolishing “silo” thinking. When focus is shifted from the organisational structure to the users, they can enable different departments collaborate more successfully.​

  9. The persona descriptions can be used to develop test scenarios and questionnaires for user research purposes.

How and why do personas work?

​Personas leverage and stimulate several innate human abilities:​

  • First and foremost, they leverage our narrative practice. This is the human ability to create, share and hear stories.​

  • Stories are easier to commit to long term memory than facts. This makes it easier for us to call on when we are problem solving, designing, building or testing.​

  • Concrete thinking. Humans tend to relate much better to tangible examples, rather than abstractions.​

  • Theory of mind (folk psychology). This is the ability to predict another person’s behavior by understanding their mental state. Eg: “What might Persona X do if…” Which relates to the following point...​

  • Empathy. This is the ability to understand, relate to and even share the feelings of other people.​

  • Experience-taking. This is the ability to have or share the “emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses” of a fictional character when reading or watching a story. Who's cried at a movie, hidden behind a pillow, laughed out loud? That's experience taking​

  • Develop focus. Personas help us to define who the software is being created for and who not to focus on. Having a clear target is important. For projects with more than one user type (like Alpha) , a list of personas will help us to prioritise which users are more important in certain scenarios than others. Simply defining who your users are makes it more apparent that you can’t design for everyone, or at least not for everyone at once — or else you risk designing for no one. ​

  • Personas help us Communicate and form consensus. We all work in multidisciplinary teams with people with vastly different expertise, knowledge, experience and perspectives. As a deliverable, the personas will help to communicate research findings to people on the team who were not able to be a part of the interviews with users. Establishing a medium for shared knowledge brings all members of a team on the same page. When all members share the same understanding of their users, then building consensus on important issues becomes a lot easier too.​

  • Make and defend decisions. Just as personas help to prioritize who to build for, they also help to determine what to build. When you see the world from your user’s perspective, then determining what is useful and what is an edge case becomes a lot easier. When a product decision is brought into question, defending it based on real data and research is the best way to show others the logical and user-focused reasoning behind the decision.​

​What are the benefits?

Personas can also help settle conflicts around product decisions – instead of saying, “I think the ‘Send’ button is too small,” we might say, “Since our primary persona always uses a mobile on the go, we need to design bigger tap targets in our app to minimise the interaction cost.”​

User personas also help prevent common product development pitfalls:​

  • Self-referential design. This happens when we design as if they are making the product for ourselves, when in fact the end user is nothing like us.​

  • Design for elastic users. An elastic user is a generic user which means different things to different people. Designing for an “elastic user” happens when product decisions are made by different stakeholders who may define the ‘user’ according to their convenience.​

  • One of the benefits of personas is that they give the product team a mental model of a particular kind of user, provoking empathy, and enabling the team to better predict user behaviour. ​

  • They can help us understand obstacles the users might face when using the product, which is essential in order to iterate and redesign products. ​

  • They can help to answer questions that will impact the design such as:​​

  • Is the persona interrupted frequently?​

  • Will Alpha be used for extended amounts of time?​

  • Will other IT systems or products be used in tandem? ​

  • What are the primary activities the persona needs to perform to meet his or her goals?​

  • How much complexity is permissible, given persona skill and frequency of use​

​Storytelling is central to human existence

I’ve mentioned empathy a lot so far – because it’s absolutely fundamental if we want the personas to work.​

For the persona to evoke empathy, the description needs to be crafted in such a way that we can imagine a real person, understand this person’s needs and desires, and predict the person’s future actions.​ So, while it may seem like unnecessary fluff to hear that Persona X goes to a personal trainer every weekend - STORIES MATTER!​ They are common to every known culture​. Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms, it also detects patterns in information. ​And stories are recognisable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. ​

When we encounter a stranger, we have a tendency to see the person as a stereotype:

"Oh you're a designer, you have square glasses, a hipster beard, always wear black and love Macs."​

We do not see the person as possessing a unique constellation of characteristics, but add them to a previously formed category. Stereotypes function as mental pictures for us, but they prevent identification with the described person​.

To move away from stereotyping and to engage in the personas means we must focus on some personal information. The data for personas has traditionally focused on behaviours and demographics or goals and tasks in work-related environments eg: experience goals, end goals, and life goals. To collect data for an engaging persona demands an awareness of other kinds of information such as background, psychology, emotions, and character traits.​ To create an engaging persona is to provide a vivid description of a user, so vivid that we can identify with the user as we build project Alpha. ​​

So, when we create personas with personal information in, it is for a very valid reason psychologically. ​

​What makes up a persona?

Common pieces of information to include are:​

  • Name, age, gender, and a photo​

  • Tag line describing what they do in “real life”; ​

  • Experience level in the area of your product or service​

  • Context for how they would interact with your product: Through choice or required by their job? How often would they use it? Do they typically use a desktop computer to access it, or their phone or other device?​

  • Goals and concerns when they perform relevant tasks: speed, accuracy, thoroughness, or any other needs that may factor into their usage​

  • Quotes to sum up the persona’s attitude

How to build personas

  1. Finding the users – ordinarily a data driven process from our application analytics – who they are, how many there are and what they do with the system .

  2. Then we form a hypothesis about how many different personas we need. Too many becomes hard to remember, so this grouping is an important exercise. We compare the different types of users – what the differences are, how we can group them, what are the largest groups​.

  3. Then we'll cultivate the data – make it richer... we'll gather information about the likes, dislikes, values, work conditions, strategies and goals​.

  4. Does the hypothesis hold? Are there any other groups we need to consider. Are all groups of equal importance? Is designing for a CFO as important as designing for a financial controller? While one might how the power to purchase the product and yet rarely use it, the other will use it day in day out. We need to ensure we've identified the right patterns in the data​.

  5. Collate the information – pull all the data together to form a story (name, age, picture, attitude – bring the persona to life)​.

  6. Then we need to think about what is the need of this persona? What is their situation? What are they trying to do/achieve? We'll try to describe a day in the life of the persona to contextualise the data and make it more meaningful​.

  7. Work with subject matter experts to validate that the personas strike true. Accept feedback and edit accordingly​.

  8. Share the personas with the team and the business. Everybody should be on the same page about the users of our products – they should be able to give feedback and contribute to future iterations. ​

  9. From the personas we'll begin to develop scenarios to help translate requirements. For example, we might ask: In a given situation, with a given goal, how would persona 3 use the product? From this we'll create use cases and requirement specifications​

  10. Iterate: Does new data or feedback alter the personas – has a usability test revealed something we didn't know about before. As we learn more about our users we'll pull that information in.

Here's the Mural board I created for Personas at Aptitude:

​Putting personas to use

A scenario is an imagined situation that describes how a persona would interact with a product in a particular context to achieve its end goal(s). ​

Scenarios help us understand the main user flows through the product– by pairing the user personas with the scenarios, we gather requirements, and from those requirements, we create solutions. Scenarios should be written from the persona’s perspective, usually at a high level, and articulate use cases that will likely happen.​

We should reference personas in our user stories and acceptance criteria and our definition of done. For example – which persona is this user story going to impact – who's problem does it solve, when would they consider it working or complete. ​The personas will guide our strategy – for example, which screens should be designed for mobile devices and which ones shouldn't. ​​

In our agile ceremonies, such as planning, refinement etc, we should invite our personas and 'ask' their opinions.

Personas help us bring this first and very important phase of empathy to our software development lifecycle. ​The more we engage with our personas and see them as real people, the more natural it will be to include them in our ways of working and the more capable we will be of creating the best product for them.​

Here's a presentation I shared about how to use personas and keep them relevant. Followed by some of the personas that were created.

Personas 2021
Download PDF • 1.41MB

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