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Patrick Noonan
Patrick Noonan

Akendi Alumnus

User Personas: What (or who) are they?

In a number of projects, I’ve had the opportunity to dig deep into the concept of user personas and their application. User personas are generally considered a side dish in the otherwise usability testing and interaction design heavy menu of a user experience professional’s services. So when we are approached by clients ready to make a serious investment in persona research, we have the opportunity to reexamine both the process of creating user personas and the way in which they can be implemented in the design process.

In this series of articles I will share some of the insights that come out of this process and provide guidance on effective user persona implementation. In this first installment I would like to explore what user personas are and how they fit into a broader set of user experience tools that include usage scenarios, experience journeys, experience lifecycles and customer personas.

Why are User Personas important?

In the interest of getting projects started quickly, far too often they start with an incomplete set of requirements. Even when requirements gathering is part of the process, the focus is commonly on technical and business requirements, without much consideration for user requirements. Without a shared understanding of the user requirements, it is easy for products to miss mark, resulting in a product that people cannot actually use for what it was intended.

User personas are an excellent way to represent key user requirements in a format that is easy to relate to and communicate within a UX design team. Keeping user personas close at hand throughout the UX design process will ensure that the needs of the end users are not forgotten.

What is a User Persona?

In short, a user persona is a stand-in for a unique group of people who share common usage goals, motivations and expectations. User Personas are meant to capture who the user is first and foremost. This is then combined with information on what they do and where they do it. Although there are similarities between user personas and for example customer segments, their differences are functionally critical. Where information about individual customers can only be inferred from broader customer segments based on group characteristics, user personas provide characteristics about a specific user that serves as a stand-in for a user group.

This makes it possible to better leverage in-depth user research in design decisions. Rather than providing age ranges, income, family make-up and general characteristics, user personas give concrete usage goals and motivational details that designers can address in the experience.

When would you use User Personas?

This brings us to the primary purpose of user personas: to communicate user research in a format that is easy to understand, distribute and apply in design decisions. By constructing archetypical characters, critical user research information that influences user experience design can be presented and conveyed effectively to the design team. Factors such as goals and usage motivations can be summarized in a short, relatable format. Although much of the salient information gathered through user research can be summarized in a variety of ways (e.g. trends, graphs, user segments), user personas provide a tangible artifact that is can be repeatedly referred to throughout the design process.

When considering a design decision, it is much easier to determine if our persona “Jack” would use a specific feature than speculating whether a customer segment of males, 25-35 years old would use it. Some users within that customer segment might use that feature, so it becomes impossible to rule out any feature based on this information. It isn’t possible to make specific decisions with general information. It is the specific nature of user personas that make them superior to customer segments in designing the user experience.

Customers vs. Users

When using personas, it is important to understand the distinction between customer personas and user personas. Simply put, customer personas cover the experience up to the point of purchase. At that point the user personas come into play. As the organizational focus of customer personas is closing sales and on-boarding, they focus on factors that are important when selecting the product/service and the actual buying (income, brand recognition, perceived value, emotion, loyalty, trust, recommendation, etc.).

User personas on the other hand focus primarily on features that influence actual use (domain knowledge, self reliance, accessibility, usage goals, useful functionality, etc.). The differences between user and customer personas make them better suited for design at the different stages of the product or service experience lifecycle. By understanding the transition between the two phases, the connections between customer thinking and user thinking become clear.

Customers are not Users

Although it is common to have the same persona transition from a customer persona to a user persona at the point of purchase, the relationship is not always one-to-one. In many cases, more than one individual may be involved in a purchasing decision. For example, when a couple decides to buy a new car, it would be unlikely that only one customer persona would lead to that eventual purchase. By viewing the customer journeys of both members of the couple, a much more complete view of the buying process begins to emerge. In this way, personas can also interact and their application should not be narrowed to a single persona interacting in a vacuum.

Users are not Customers

In a similar way, the customer and the user may not be the same in all cases. In the example of the couple buying the car, it is very possible that the individual who is the primary user of that car may not be the primary decision maker in the purchase. It is also possible that they are shopping for a car for one of their children. In this case, the user and the customer are completely distinct and each may have a completely different set of goals and motivations.

The increased focus of interactive experience-points before purchase such as corporate websites and in-store kiosks blur the customer and user personas distinction further. In fact, they happen concurrently, both user and customer experiences are part of the car buying experience. As the quality of these interactions influence heavily a purchasing decision, the user specific features are important before purchase.

Keeping the Experience Focussed

In the above I hope it becomes evident that in experience design projects it makes a ton of sense to create personas as well as make the distinction between customers and users. The deep insights you get from doing user research, asking the user what they DO with the product or service and converting that into easily communicable information in the form of personas is simply very helpful.

Secondly, keeping the conversation first focussed on the pre-purchase funnel, where the experience is about value, perception, attitude and successfully on-boarding of a potential customer, followed by a clear focus on how people USE the product/service after on-boarding, Making the experience the best it can be for the user, not lowering your shield because they are ‘in’ already: we made the sale so now it’s over to support to help users out when they get stuck with the product. Our end-users deserve a better experience, and so do you as designer.

Patrick Noonan
Patrick Noonan

Akendi Alumnus

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