So you want to build a digital product? History tells us that to create a successful product, you need to be building it for someone. A product with no customers is like a floppy disk in the 21st century…useless. That’s why good Product Managers have a set of tools, including user personas, to keep development teams customer-focused.
Being customer-focused (or customer-oriented), helps us to build better products for one very simple reason: it helps our product to really solve the problem or fill the need.
When you start building a product with no target user in mind, you can’t be sure that anyone is going to want it, or that you won’t have to make some serious iterations down the line to make it work better. It will be consigned in the annals of history as a failed product with no product-market fit, along with New Coke and the Zune.
So it’s time to get customer-focused and start creating those all important user personas!
What is a User Persona?
User Personas are descriptions of fictitious characters reflecting the values, behaviors, and characteristics of a product’s ideal user. Teams use Personas to align around specific user types for development.
Having qualitative information about potential users helps drive decision making and provides a filter team members can use when considering different options.
The concept of a User Persona was created by Alan Cooper, a noted software developer, in 1983. He devised a prototype of what the Persona would become based on informal interviews with seven to eight users. Today, a User Persona is defined to be “Fictional characters, which you create based upon your research to represent the different user types that might use your service, product, site, or brand in a similar way” (Dam & Siang, 2020).
You can think of a user persona as a character study of your target customer. It helps us to imagine our target audience as real people, and visualize how our product will fit into their real life. You can include all kinds of information and get as deep as you like when building your initial personas. For example:
- Likes and dislikes
- Pain points
- Favorite brands
- Leaders they follow
It’s a key component of UX design, and helps to influence design decisions, making sure that your product works for a real user and doesn’t just look good! Going beyond UX, a good set of personas can influence decisions at all levels and across all aspects of development.
As for the persona document itself, you can really let your imagination run wild. There’s not really a wrong way to create a persona document, it depends entirely on the personality of your team and your brand.
To show you how easy it can be, we mocked these up in Canva in under 20 minutes, by repurposing existing templates.
PS. Dinesh’s short course in Building Digital Products is real and we’ve made it free for a limited time only. Check it out here.
They’re mostly used internally, so adding a pop of color and some images can make them more engaging content for meetings, but you can always opt for a plain black and white text-only table.
The point is not to create something pretty, but to create a document which promotes empathy for your users, and generates more understanding of who you’re building for among your teams.
There’s also no exact list of what you should include in your user personas, as that entirely depends on your product.
You might also be interested in: What Is Product Design?
How do User Personas fir into Product Management?
Four reasons why user personas are particularly are essential for Product Managers:
- They’re vital to the design process.
- They keep the team customer-focused.
- They sell the user’s story.
- They guide marketing efforts.
Your design team will use user personas them to build a more useful and meaningful user experience. For you as a Product Manager, they give you a common ground to begin conversations with your designers, particularly if you don’t have a design background. If you both understand and respect the user personas, you’ve got common ground. And common ground is absolutely vital for influencing without authority.
As we’ve mentioned before, they also keep the entire team customer-focused. Everyone has it written down in black and white who they’re designing for, programming for, coding for, or marketing too.
Storytelling is a huge part of being a Product Manager, and user personas help you to sell the story of your product. They paint a picture of what it’ll do after launch, who it will help, and how. It helps stakeholders to place themselves in the user’s shoes and better understand the purpose of the product.
Marketing teams also make the most out of personas by using them to guide their marketing efforts. It’s helpful, when designing marketing campaigns, to understand who you’re going to reach. Do they spend a lot of time on social media, or is it easier to reach them via email? Would traditional ad campaigns work, or should we do some guerrilla marketing?
8 Do’s and Don’ts of Creating User Personas
- Use a mix of instincts and data. You don’t have to gather data to start building user personas. You can start by sketching out what you think you know about your customers, and then test your hypotheses later with user surveys/interviews. In the earliest stages of product development, it’s more about just getting some ideas down.
- Use data! Saying that…data is key! Make sure that before you actually start building anything that your user personas are data-driven.
- Gather data in more than one way. We’re using user surveys here as our method for building personas, but the truth is that there are multiple mediums for gathering the data you require to create them. For a more accurate picture, try to use a variety of methods, like interviews and analyzing the data of your existing user base.
- Get creative. User personas are meant to be inspiring, and can be used as motivation for your team and other stakeholders. Don’t be afraid to let your artsy side show.
- Choose style over substance. While it’s fun to mess around in Figma creating gorgeous, colorful user personas, the information is far more important. If your persona documents are a simple Word file with no pictures, that’s OK too.
- Work in isolation. As a Product Manager, you’re responsible for creating user personas. But that doesn’t mean you’re the only one with any valuable to contribute towards them. Your marketing and design teammates should also be competent in creating them and might have some insightful input.
- Stick to one persona. Hopefully more than one person is going to use your product. Try to create at least one persona for each of your user groups. For example, Airbnb might create personas for digital nomads, business people travelling for work, couples, and families going on holiday together.
- Create a thousand personas. While it’s great to get really detailed with your personas, this doesn’t mean that you need to create one for every single actual user. If you’re a product built for everyone (rare, but go you!) stick with 4 or 5 ideal users who represent your most significant user segments. Imagine if Google created user personas for every single different type of person who uses the search bar.
You might also be interested in: How Product Managers Assess Their Products and Users
The 4-Step Process
Step 1: Sketch out your assumptions and what you want to know
The first step is to consolidate what you already know about your users. This could be based on existing data if you’re working on a new feature for an existing product with an existing user base, or it might be entirely driven by assumptions. (Don’t worry, we’re about to get into the real data soon enough!)
You also need to figure out what information you need to gather when conducting user research.
Step 2: Set up your user survey
Build a list of questions based on the information you’re trying to gather. It’s essential to have a mix of both qualitative and quantitative data. These can be some general questions like:
- Describe yourself in one sentence
- Which of these features have you used in the past month?
- Which activities consume most of your time?
- How do you stay connected with your friends? Direct and social media?
You can conduct your user surveys in a number of ways. You can create a landing page and send it out via email or social media campaign. You could also create a pop up on your most popular, or the most relevant, page of your website. Another option is to launch a beta version of your product or feature, and ask the exclusive beta users to fill out the survey in exchange for getting access.
Step 3: Analyze the data
If you’re competent in product data analysis, this is your time to shine. It can be a little intimidating to face what looks like a wall of data if you’re not that confident with analytics, but there are a couple of things that basically any Product Manager can do.
- Organize by demographic: Start by segmenting your users by demographic. Are your users overwhelmingly in the same age bracket? If you have a diverse set of users, see if there is a correlation between demographic and behaviour.
- Organize by usage: Some products will have hardcore users and ‘hobbyists.’ Segmenting your users can help to separate out the people who need your product every day, and those who just dip in and out.
Step 4: Create your personas
Once you’ve analyzed the data and have a clear picture of who your users are, it’s time to create your User Personas. There are many design tools out there that you can find below to create your persona, like Figma, Sketch, or a user persona template.
You could also work with your design team to create more aesthetically pleasing personas, or find a specialist on Dribbble – which doubles as a great place to find inspiration if you want a crack at designing your own.
And don’t forget, your Personas must be:
- Relatable: You want your team to relate to the persona almost as if it is a person they would know.
- Concise: Put only those details relevant enough for your team to design and build features for the product.
- Well-researched: Start with a blank slate, perform market research, float surveys, conduct interviews and validate them with your team.
- Well-structured: Structure your findings to create a story. This will put the team and stakeholders in the user’s shoes.
You could go for something bright but clean and professional, like this example from Ofer Ariel:
This persona card by Adam Kalin takes a storytelling approach:
This design by Joseph Hren includes a series of sliding scales as a way of displaying information:
To choose what information to include in your user personas, think about what information teams need to know to build (what platforms they prefer, age bracket other brands they admire, usage data, etc) and what will make your users seem more human (name, hobbies, skills, personality traits, etc).
- User personas inspire empathy and understanding for the user.
- Use a mixture of qualitative data, quantitative data, and your own instincts.
- Collaborate with your designers.
- Be data driven.
- Choose substance over style…but don’t be afraid to get creative!