A user persona is a semi-fictional character created to represent different customer types that use a company’s products or services.
User personas are profiles of imagined individuals that reflect a business’ core customer base. User personas are written as if the individual were real, but at the same time, they reflect common attributes across a cohort of people. They are semi-fictional, in that they are not a specific individual, but their characteristics should be gathered from observation of real-world users.
User personas are intended to give a reliable and realistic reflection of how a business could expect a group of people to engage with a product, service or campaign.
A well-researched, analytical and data-driven user persona is hugely beneficial to a company's product development, sales strategies and marketing campaigns.
The function of user personas is to ensure that company initiatives (such as marketing or product development), are done with the user very firmly in mind.
With respect to product development, this means avoiding the development of unnecessary features or products, by referring back to the users genuine needs. Instead of developing what designers or engineers want to build, efforts are concentrated only on what a user persona would find useful or practical to have. User personas are further used to understand if the target audience will use and engage with a product in the expected or desired way.
Marketing plans are also best executed with a user persona at the center. The tone of voice, publishing channels, and advertising strategies should all have a reference back to what would be appealing to the key audience, represented by the user persona.
In addition, sales initiatives that encompass when and how to approach a prospect, either via calls, emails or meetings, are improved when these are developed around a user persona profile.
A goal-directed persona focuses on the methodology or approach that a user takes to solve a problem. By establishing the processes and workflows that a user would take, you aim to know how a user would use or engage with a product. This user persona is therefore associated with user experience (UX) and product development.
A role-based persona understands where a persona is within an organization, and how that affects their behavior and decision making. This user persona aims to broaden out the view from a goal-directed perspective to one that looks at how a job function and environment will impact the demands from a product or service.
‘Engaging personas’ are a holistic view of a persona that gives designers as much as possible to engage with. This persona is fleshed out with characteristics ranging from emotions and social background to their psychology. Emphasis is put on creating stories that enable the persona to come to life. This strategy improves design processes by helping teams genuinely envisage a person, and therefore deliver a better product.
You need a user personas to help guide any ideation process. A persona helps you understand how a user behaves, what they experience, and what their goals are. It gives your team an empathy with the end user that helps them focus their efforts. In understanding that there are different personas, a business understands different needs and expectations, and how to cater to them.
Developing user personas gives a point of reference throughout a development cycle, to help ensure that progression aligns with genuine user needs. By asking questions such as ‘How would Paul, Sarah, and Amir feel, react, experience or behave with respect to change X feature Y or change Z’ you prioritize empathy with the user over internal business demands or preferences.
The development of personas first began in the early 1990s, when researchers began to discuss varying use of IT systems through concepts of ‘user archetypes’, ‘user models’ or ‘lifestyle snapshots’. This understanding of cohorts and behavior patterns lead to the creation of a singular profile that would act as a representative of a particular group.
Developing in-depth user personas usually requires an extensive allocation of time and resources, which can often lead to user personas that are too high-level, and do not accurately reflect the audience a business is targeting.
Companies can consequently cut corners by having just a small number of user interviews, or relying on small sets of user data, and extrapolating extensively from this base set. This inevitably leads to unreliable or highly speculative user personas.
Worse is when working teams undertake no research initiatives, and instead, gather together and form user profiles from their instincts or experiences. Formulating personas in this way is problematic, as their development comes with internal bias from team members that prejudges or predetermines a user’s needs. Narrow observation of specific users can also over or under-appreciate certain characteristics.
Poorly executed user personas, or personas that are created to self-validate what a team wants to hear, can, therefore, have the opposite effect of their intended purpose of creating a genuinely representative external point of validation.