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Understand Personas, Understand What Users Want

You’ve spent months working closely with stakeholders and business leads and have gone through several development iterations. You’re confident that this feature is perfect and ready to be released to the user…then that happy success bubble is burst – the users hate it or are not using it.

Personas can help solve this problem by showing you how to develop a product in the way the users ‘actually use it.’ “Success is dependent on fulfilling the goals of each unique person that visits, downloads or is forced to use your solution. If you don’t have a pulse on your customers/users and their needs, all pre-defined requirements may fall flat” (Deardurff 2017). If a persona reveals that your user is color blind, you do not want to develop a bunch of colorful screens that lack the required contrast, thus making everything indistinguishable. Personas can also reveal why a feature or product is not noticed or being utilized by the users. “To get a customer to pay attention to a product, there has to be something in it for them…find a way to make their lives better or easier by using your product or certain feature...” (Lawlor 2016).

This is the first blog in a three part series where we discuss how personas guide decisions in the development process that lead to better products, services, features, and interfaces.

What is a Persona?

We agree with defining a persona as a representation of a user, based on research that incorporates their goals, needs, and interests (Ilama 2015). The word ‘fictional’ is used in many other definitions. Fictional means something feigned, invented, or imagined. We dislike that the word fictional is associated with personas. While a persona is not a real user, they are also not an imagined user either. A persona represents real users of your feature or product and helps us keep their wants top of mind during our development.

Personas were born from User-Center Design, a framework that puts the user at the center of focus. The main goal is to understand the communication process between an object and a user. This was popularized by Don Norman, a leading expert in User Experience, in his book, The Design of Everyday Things.

*captured from various user-centered design resources & research

Personas are depicted as a specific person or character that represents a real user group. A persona is a one page description that typically includes the user’s name, occupation, goals, behaviors, and limitations. An effective persona acknowledges the business goal by being refined to eliminate extraneous details that aren’t relevant to the business goal. For example, when we initially interviewed our group of users, one woman mentioned she wants to be a professional golfer. It is a fun detail and we included in the persona’s first draft. Then we reviewed and discovered that that detail has nothing to do with our business goal, which is to improve the timeliness of expense reports submission by providing users with a mobile expense reporting tool. We refined our persona and removed this extraneous detail to keep the team focused on our business strategy.


An effective persona acknowledges the business goal by being refined to eliminate extraneous details that aren’t relevant to the business goal.


Types of Personas

You may have seen various examples of personas and noticed differences between them. Personas have evolved over the years, which has led to various types of personas. You may have heard, or even used, some of them depending on your situation or goal.

Provisional

Provisional personas are based on secondhand perspectives of the user. An example of this would be having the analytics and survey results for an expense reporting tool, but not having firsthand interviews or observations of actual users. This type could be considered the ‘base’ of all personas.

Proto

Proto personas are created from secondary research and teams ‘informed’ guesses. This would be interviewing the manager of the sales team who shares with you the process he ‘thinks’ his team is following to log their expense reports. However, you aren’t able to interview or observe the salespeople who are experiencing the pain points and using workarounds for unique scenarios that don’t fit into the standard process. Despite this gap, a proto persona is better than no persona and a good starting point to seek validation.

Buyer/Customer

Buyer/Customer personas represent a large segment of your audience involved in purchasing your product or service. There is a difference between buyer and customer. If we were a third-party provider of an out-of-the-box expense reporting tool, the buyer persona would be the procurement team or the accounts payable senior management buying the product or service. Whereas the customer persona would be the managers and field employees that use the purchased expense reporting tool.

Marketing

Marketing personas are focused on demographic information, shopping preferences, motivations, concerns, and media habits. This type investigates how a buyer/customer would first encounter your product or service and their purchasing process that would transition to a user/customer.

You might find other types of personas because as we stated personas have evolved over the years. Throughout our careers we’ve used all the different types based on the situation and need. Provisional and Proto might be the most common because there isn’t always the option to interact, observe, and interview actual users; usually just a few business owners and analysts are involved. The big thing to remember is if you want to create a product/feature that your users actually use, personas will reveal insights into your users and that is better than no persona and no insights.

Creation Process

Part 2 of this series will dive deeper into the persona creation process, but we wanted to introduce the basic creation process and the persona template we will be using. The creation process for personas follows the below steps.

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

*download template

How Personas Help

Personas help guide decisions about product, features, navigation, and visual design by revealing the user’s goals, habits, and pain points. A persona’s memorability and relatability enable development teams to stay focused on the user’s goals and tasks rather than on creating a slick feature. “… the reason just-okay products are indeed, just-okay, is that they’re designed on a stack of assumptions” (Mahalingam 2016). Personas will provide validation and ‘informed’ guesses rather than assumptions.


A persona’s memorability and relatability enable development teams to stay focused on the user’s goals and tasks rather than on creating a slick feature.


Personas are a valuable and versatile tool providing insights into the user. Personas allow us to make development and design decisions that address user needs, user behaviors, and fix user problems. Personas can lead to a product or feature that when a user uses it, the product or feature makes their life better. Thereby, avoiding developing features that no one uses. In our next blog, “How To: Create A Persona & Pitfalls to Avoid,” we will continue the topic of persona creation and review some common pitfalls to avoid when working with personas.


Part I 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.



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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!