Should you use personas?

As the old saying goes: you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

But CEOs, product managers, UX designers and marketers might find it more accurate to say: you can’t please all of the people and nor should you try.

The most successful products and services focus on specific target audiences or markets. Which is where personas come in.

Personas are useful at various levels, from strategic planning to iterative development. An effective persona for your product or service must be a good archetype for your target market.

A persona should be both representative and realistic. It should be easy to go out and find a real person in your target market who closely resembles (if not exactly matches) the persona. If it’s hard to find such a person, then it isn’t a useful persona!

Personas should always be based on sound research. Whatever the format, there are three types of information that I think are especially helpful to include:  

1) Goals and needs - What is the person trying to achieve? What would enable them to achieve their goals more fully, more efficiently and more satisfyingly? What are their pain points? How do they want to feel? What are their motivations?

2) Context and constraints - In which situations will they use the product/service? How much money and time can they afford? Which related products and services do they use? Which devices do they use? What knowledge, education and experience do they have?

3) Attitudes and values - Do they prefer simplicity or customisation? Are they an early or late adopter? Do they prioritise value or quality? What are their attitudes towards security, privacy and risk? Do they seek social validation? What type of language or design style resonates with them?

The details you include in a persona will depend on the product or service you are designing. If you are developing a travel website, it is relevant to include how much the person spends on holidays. If you are designing a recipes app, it is relevant to include where the person does their food shopping.

Persona non grata?

Not everyone likes to use personas. They are sometimes criticised as a poor substitute for involving real customers in the design process. But they should never be seen as a substitute for real people! As early as possible you should be testing and validating your product with real people. Not just bringing “users” into a lab, but releasing your product out into the wild, getting feedback from the market and iterating on that feedback.

Personas must always be extracted from real data and research. We can never know enough about our customers. There is always more to discover. We must continually look for new unmet needs to satisfy, and new pain points to soothe.

Provided we keep these principles in mind - and avoid ascribing mystical powers - I think personas are helpful. They are a sketch, a summary, a shorthand, a segment. They enable you to define and focus on archetypal customers, which you can refer to at any stage of the design/development process.

Just remember that no real person is just an archetype.


Adam Cranfield is a digital consultant and director at DigitalFWD.