Resurrecting Dead Personas

Being a user-centered designer means that you deliberately seek out the stories, data, and rationale behind your users’ motivations. You endeavor to keep user concerns at the forefront of every design decision, and regularly conduct research and collect data.

But collecting facts about users isn’t the same as knowing your users. Research and data need to be regularly aggregated, analyzed, and synthesized into a format that is both understandable and accessible at critical moments. You need to turn user facts into user wisdom, and one of the most common methods for doing this is to develop user personas.

Type “how to build user personas” into your favorite search engine and you will get thousands of results outlining different templates and examples of personas. Across the tech industry, personas “put a human face on aggregated data,” and help design and product teams focus on the details that really matter. Studies have shown that companies can see 4x the return on investment in personas, which explains why some firms spend upwards of $120,000 on these design tools.

However, while it is common for design teams to spend considerable amounts of time and money developing personas, it is almost as common to see those personas abandoned and unused after a while. Everett McKay, Principal at UX Design Edge, has pointed out that user personas can fail for a number of reasons, such as:

  • They do not reflect real target users.
  • They are not developed with product goals in mind.
  • They are not embedded into team processes.

I agree with everything McKay suggests, but I would add that personas fail largely because of one common misconception: the false idea that once you build a persona, you’re done. As designers, we know that the first version of a product is never perfect, but with multiple rounds of design and research it can be made better. Personas are no different.

To recover personas that have become lifeless, here’s how you can iterate on them with periodic research and use them to achieve tangible goals. The following steps will help ensure you see value from the investment you made developing them in the first place. Let’s put your personas (back) to work and incorporate them into your design and development process.

How a persona dies

Let’s imagine you work at a company called Amazing Childcare that creates tools to help parents find childcare options for their children. Let’s also say you have the following data and statistics for AmazingChildcare.com:

  • 82% of customers are between the ages of 30 and 35, and 73% of those are female.
  • The most common concerns around finding childcare (as reported in user interviews) are cost and quality of care received.
  • AmazingChildcare.com has a homepage bounce rate of 40%.
  • Customer satisfaction survey shows an average satisfaction rating of 6.5 (out of 10).

While this data is interesting, it is hard to process and assimilate into your design practice. You still need to go through the arduous work of understanding why the majority of users are who they are, what problems they are trying to solve, and how you can better meet their needs. So, you decide to create a persona.

The persona you create is Susan, a 34-year old working mother of a two-year-old. She is interested in finding a qualified nanny that has passed a background check. Susan, like all freshly made personas, is a much more thought-provoking platform for crafting design solutions than a spreadsheet of numbers. She is someone we can imagine, remember, and empathize with.

This is the point in the story when Susan dies.

At first, the design team enjoys thinking about and designing for Susan. Having her “in the room” is thought provoking and interesting, but over time, Susan is talked about less and less. She starts to feel irrelevant to the products you’re building. You realize that Susan has “died,” leaving a lifeless, zombie Susan sitting in her place. You consider all the research and work your team put into creating Susan and wonder “what went wrong?”

The problem is that your personas remained static and unmoving while the company, Amazing Childcare, grew and changed.

Review, research, repeat

As your product and marketing strategies change over time, so do your target users. In our example, Amazing Childcare may have started with a large user base of parents looking for full-time childcare options for their toddlers, but over time, the demographic changed. Now, it’s most frequently used by parents of school-age children looking for one-time, “date night” babysitters. When this happens, your original personas—like Susan—are no longer useful for thinking through design problems. Unless you periodically validate your personas, you’ll be responding to old assumptions (based on your outdated personas) rather than who your customers really are. In other words, your real-world users changed, but Susan didn’t.

To remedy this, you should regularly conduct persona research, using a variety of methods to evaluate whether your personas still reflect:

  • The most common demographic, budget, and purchase scenarios of your users
  • The main behavior patterns of your users
  • The motivations and goals of your users.

You can conduct your persona research on a schedule, such as once a quarter, or you can opportunistically work it into the usability research you already do. Either way, you need to make a commitment to keeping your personas relevant.

If we go back to our example at Amazing Childcare, your personas would change based on the new research. Susan may still be a valid persona for your company, but your research would show that she no longer represents its core users, and should therefore no longer be your primary persona. Based on the updated research, you could develop a new persona named Beverly. Beverly is a 42-year-old mother of a 10-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl. Unlike Susan, Beverly is interested in finding an inexpensive babysitter for occasional date nights with her husband. You would use Beverly to think about the needs of the core user base, but only use Susan when you’re designing tools that directly cater to the demographic she represents.

It is natural and necessary for personas to evolve and change; personas like Susan can drift out of the limelight of “primary persona” and make room for new friends like Beverly. Your ecosystem of personas should be as dynamic as your ecosystem of users, and regular persona research will ensure that they evolve in sync.

Set goals

Personas can help you do more than think about and design for target users. They can (and should) be used to help you reach real, tangible goals. Goals that reflect ways of increasing business, creating better user experiences, or both, will help you update your personas and develop your product. Even if you are not sure what is possible to achieve with personas, you should make an attempt at setting goals. Goals (even unachievable ones) provide a means for tracking the return on investment of your efforts.

To get started, try using this format from Tamara Adlin and John Pruitt.

The Persona Lifecycle
Goal or issue How things are today How we want things to be tomorrow Ways to measure change
Description A problem you would like your personas to solve. A description of the current state of affairs. A description of the “first step” in achieving your goal. A description of analytics, research, or other methods you can use to measure progress.

Figure 1: Tamara Adlin and John Pruitt’s Essential Persona Lifecycle format

For each goal, you will need to identify how you’ll measure progress toward that objective. You may need to create surveys and interview scripts for some, while for others, you may need analytics tools.

Here is an example of a persona goal we could set at Amazing Childcare.

Amazing Childcare Persona Goal
Goal or issue How things are today How we want things to be tomorrow Ways to measure change
Use our primary persona to drive feature development. We have just started our business and believe users like “Susan” (our primary persona) will want certain features (like nanny search and background checks) to be truly satisfied. However, the Susan persona needs to be validated and tested. We want to thoroughly research and validate our Susan persona and better understand how Amazing Childcare can meet our primary users’ needs. We can validate the Susan persona and measure customer satisfaction through a series of surveys and interviews. We will know we’ve succeeded when the next feature release increases customer satisfaction with Amazing Childcare.

Figure 2: Example persona goal for Amazing Childcare

Once you have created a set of goals for your personas, you can evaluate them as part of your regular research plan. If you find that you’re falling behind on any of your goals, you can research and recalibrate your personas based on the metrics you care about.

For instance, if we evaluated the Susan persona in the ways we’ve outlined above, the data we would uncover indicates that Susan doesn’t actually represent the majority of our users. We would then reevaluate our personas and ultimately develop our new primary persona, Beverly.

Putting personas (back) to work

While research and goal setting are good practices, in and of themselves, the real benefit of personas can be seen when you put them to use. Here are some suggestions for how to incorporate personas into your design practice:

  • Start putting the face of your target persona at the top of every sketch, wireframe, and prototype. Encourage others to do the same.
  • Put a comment in every product story or ticket that states the target persona for that feature.
  • Shake up regular design meetings by asking a few people to roleplay as your personas. Throughout the rest of the meeting, have them look at every new design through the lens of their assigned persona.
  • Conduct a workshop. Activities such as Persona Empathy Mapping reinvigorate and add detail to personas.

One of my favorite ways to utilize personas is to write scenarios in which they are the main character, then use them to explain research results. For example, let’s say we’re evaluating a new interface for the sign-up and login process on our website. Instead of presenting raw numbers (e.g., “10% of new users couldn’t find the sign-up interface”), we can present the data in a scenario, providing a way to understand a design problem that goes beyond statistics. Here is an example:

Beverly came to the Amazing Childcare website to evaluate whether the company would actually be useful in helping her find reliable babysitters for her family. She decides that she would like to try the product and wonders if there is a free trial available. She searches the content of the web page for the words “free trial” or “sign-up,” but is unsuccessful. She does not think the “login” button applies to her, since she is a new user and does not yet have an account. She does not think to click on the “login” button, so she fails to find the new-member sign-up interface.

In the example above, we’re using Beverly to describe feature requirements, usage statistics, and study results. The benefits of using personas to explain these components is that you are simultaneously making messy and complex details easier to understand, and forcing yourself to deeply consider who you’re really designing for. According to Alan Cooper, you should “[d]esign each interface for a single, primary persona.” Focusing on a persona like Beverly forces us to define the parameters of what our design should accomplish and helps us ultimately evaluate its success.

Keeping personas alive

Developing personas and keeping them alive can be difficult. Without regular care and feeding, they can waste away and your investment in them will be lost. In The User Is Always Right, Steve Mulder described it best:

“It’s very easy to create personas, then think your work is done. But just having personas doesn’t mean people will accept them. Just accepting the personas doesn’t mean people will remember them. Just remembering the personas doesn’t mean people will actually use them. Your job is to keep the personas alive so they show their worth.”

To ensure your personas are accepted, remembered, and used, you need to be the persona advocate on your team. As the persona advocate, you need to:

  • Regularly conduct persona research.
  • Set goals.
  • Make sure there is always a place for your personas at the design table.

With creativity and persistence, you can cultivate a suite of well-researched, battle-tested user personas.

While being a persona’s advocate may seem like a lot of work, it’s worth doing. Personas are more than just a document, they are an experience. Taking the time to draft a set of user personas, use them, evaluate them, research them, and refresh them, forces you to consider who your users are, what their goals are, and how your product fits into their lives.

If you’re ready to become the persona advocate on your team, here are some additional resources to help you along:

Books

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