Smarter ideas worth writing about.

How To Create a Persona and Pitfalls to Avoid

Who is interested in developing products, services, and features that users never knew they always wanted? Who wants to build a strong, long-lasting relationship with their users?

If that’s you, then it’s time to create a persona!

This is our second blog in a three part series where we will be focusing on persona creation and how to avoid persona pitfalls. Our first blog, “Understand Personas, Understand What Users Want,” explored what a persona is, the different types, their history, and briefly touched on the creation process. Come back for Part 3, “Personas Lead to Successful Products,” where we will spotlight the benefits of using personas!

Creation Process

In our last blog, “Understand Personas, Understand What Users Want,” we gave you this basic creation process:

  • Interview and/or observe users
  • Collect and analyze data
  • Verify user and business goals, needs, behaviors, and problems
  • Refine and edit details
  • Repeat

For those who are visual learners, you might have googled personas and found some of the following examples.


*captured from Google image search on "personas"

Hmmmm, so am I supposed to pick one? What all should be included? Where do I go from here? If these questions are going through your head have no fear all will be covered in this blog.

Create a persona

There are a lot of different persona templates out there, and after evaluation and personal use, we found Lauren Klein's template from "Build Better Products: A Modern Approach to Building Successful User-Centered Products" to be quite an effective base and starting point. In our experience, people learn from doing and they learn from their mistakes. For that reason, we created a template using Klein’s as our base and shortly outlined what goes into each section. Then during our workshops (which is part of our Personas Non Grata No More presentation) we broke the audience into groups, passed out our template and some of the googled examples (as seen above) for the participants to reference as they tried to create their personas. We did not, however, tell them what was right, wrong, or indifferent. The point here was to take action and then to learn. We encourage you to do the same; take 10 minutes, download the template, and try creating a persona of your own. The template also includes a case study describing a requested project.

*download template

In our experience people learn from doing and they learn from their mistakes.

From our workshop

If you do not have time to create your own persona, we would like you to be able to learn from others. Below you will find some of the personas created during our workshop. Once you have looked over the workshop personas, please read on to learn how to avoid common pitfalls when creating personas.

*right click to open image in a new tab and view larger



Persona Pitfalls to Avoid

Not Identifying the Users

How can you understand the users if you do not know who those users are? In our case study (located in our template), who are the 75% who said they would use a mobile expense tool? Was there other information in the survey that could tell us: How mobile access would make the process more efficient for the user? How it would save the user time? Does making this application mobile mean the users have access to the company intranet before they get home or over the weekend? Identifying the user and performing initial research can help answer those questions. Ramya Mahalingam states that user research “examines the motivations behind the feedback it collects, leading to insights about where the designers’ assumptions might not be true. Incorporating these insights into product decisions is what elevates a just-okay product to the land of mind-bogglingly-fantastic” (Mahalingam 2016).

Everyone wants “mind-bogglingly-fantastic” (Mahalingam 2016) products, so why might this pitfall occur? It could be because the word ‘fictional’ is associated with most personas’ definitions. We dislike this because fictional means, something feigned, invented, or imagined. A persona is based on ‘real’ users – not imaged users. An inaccurate understanding of the users provides assumptions rather than validations, which can lead to creating unused features.

A persona is based on ‘real’ users – not imagined users.

Another reason this pitfall might occur is because you’re creating a new product. However, this should never be the case because unless you are creating this product or feature for yourself, you better know who you are creating it for.

Getting Caught Up by a User’s Role

This can be hard but “roles” group users by the tasks they perform. They do not inform you when, why, or how a user performs those tasks. With that in mind, you might need multiple personas per role to accurately capture or focus on the user. Think about someone who has the same role/job title as yourself, do you behave exactly the same? Do you do everything at the same time? Do you prioritize every task the same? The user’s role is only a piece of a persona, not the entirety.

Not Understanding the User

When it comes to personas the most talked about aspect is empathy.

Empathy allows you to understand the user holistically. What was the user doing when they came across your product? What are they thinking or feeling, and how does that affect what they see and how they act? What frustration is present, and how does it affect their action and opinion? “It’s tempting to put a big check mark on the project if something is technically usable, but human motivation often does not fit into a series of neat checkboxes. Sometimes people are unpredictable, have misconceptions about the software, or simply no interest in using it” (Auvil 2017). Emotion supersedes sense and logic in most user situations. When designing for a user, and not an object, you need to design with emotions in mind, and the only way to do that is to take the time to understand the user as a whole.

A WARNING BEFORE YOU PROCEED WITH YOUR USER PERSONA CREATION. Jumping into trying to understand the user too soon can lead to problems. How can you understand someone when you don’t know anything about them? This is why identifying the user and doing the initial research and discovery is important, and the first pitfall to avoid. Let’s go back to our case study (located in our template). Is mobile access more efficient for them because it has a simplified UI? Or is it because it’s right in front of them and they can take immediate action? Or maybe the fact that if feels cool and modern and who doesn’t want to use the latest and greatest? Maybe the user is not entering their expense report on time because they travel a lot, and nights and weekends are dedicated family time. Knowing the behaviors, emotions, and surrounding environment the user is in allows you to identify requirements that focus on the user and how they will use your service or product. “When done right, giving your users a voice, understanding why they behave a specific way and how they respond emotionally WILL deliver both short and long-term value. Immediately, you may find that improving the current experience is all users need. They don’t need new features” (Deardurff 2017).

Not Analyzing for Patterns

Now, you might be thinking, if a persona provides you with this much knowledge into your users and leads to features that are actually used, then why not have one for as many users as possible? Yes, creating more personas can lead to insights, but it can also be like having too many cooks in the kitchen.

Grouping users with like problems, goals, and behaviors provides focus and priority. In our workshop, each of our six teams created a persona where the user was a travelling salesperson. Being able to take a photo of a receipt and upload it to the mobile app was very important to them.

There is no sense to have six unique personas in this case. What’s important is to identify the like goals, highlight the pattern, and to consolidate into a single persona. A single persona creates focus and allows the team to prioritize and design to meet a specific persona’s needs. That doesn’t mean you won’t have multiple personas, but it’s important to group like patterns, and minimize when possible.

Not Sharing with Others

Too often, the UX team leads the user research, creates the personas, and then doesn’t share them with the rest of the team. Team inclusion can lead to new insights while creating a common language and goal. When the team understands and empathizes with the user, it motivates them to want to fix their problems and motivation leads to innovative solutions. “If we want to have great organizations, we need to have thriving teams. In order to have thriving teams, we need to have motivated individuals” (Conlin 2017).

When the team understands and empathizes with the user, it motivates them to want to fix their problems and motivation leads to innovative solutions.

Not Updating Frequently

Not adjusting and refining based on new insights or business needs will lead to irrelevant user personas. Are you the same person you were a year ago? Do you do everything the same way? User’s habits, knowledge, problems, and goals change or evolve. Let’s think about how we communicate with each other. First, we started with the spoken word then letters were formed, followed by the invention of the telephone, which led to email and text message, and now there’s social media – all are still valid forms of communication, but which do you use more? Which does your user use? If you aren’t updating your personas to reflect the users’ current behaviors, then your personas will no longer be pertinent to the design problem at hand.

Being Generic

If you target everyone, you target no one. You aren’t targeting 24-54 year old field agents. You are targeting Mary, who is 53 loves cooking for her 2 grandkids, lives in Chicago, and works part-time. How can you connect with an age range of 18-54 years? You can’t. Including relevant personal details about your user in your persona leads to emotional connections. “It means you’ve created a product that stands out in someone’s heart. The product becomes what people reach for because it’s the most helpful” (Wilson 2016). Understanding your user’s unique needs and limitations will reveal inspired and great design.

Understanding your user’s unique needs and limitations will reveal inspired and great design.

Personas Created Effectively

Filling out a template to create a persona is easy but refining the personas over time and focusing on the behaviors, emotions, and patterns that lead to “mind-bogglingly-fantastic” (Mahalingam 2016) products takes diligence and practice. Take time to review the persona you created earlier. Now that you know some of the pitfalls, would you change anything about the persona you created? Bookmark this blog so you can continue to refine your personas over time. Still curious about whether you should create a persona? Be sure to read our next installment in this series as we dive deeper into how personas can be used to generate successful user stories that add value.

Interested in a Cardinal-facilitated personas workshop? Contact us to learn about bringing our Personas Non Grata No More presentation to your team!

Part II of Cardinal Solutions Personas blog series was authored by Jessica Rensing with contributions from Kris Schroeder, a business analyst and project manager in Cardinal's Cincinnati office.

Resources & References


About The Author

UX Designer

Jessica is a determined dreamer, a coffee-drinker, a UX Designer and a human being in Cardinal’s Cincinnati office. Her experience and easy going personality enables her to empathize with the users as well as any team she’s a part of. She’s a multidisciplinary designer & developer with a focus on providing elegant solutions to user problems, and she’s not afraid to admit that bacon might be the best meat in the world. Jessica is nothing less than unique!