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Using empathy in design Personas in user experience design

User Experience (UX) & Design Last update: March 3, 2018 Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Tags: user experience, usability, persona, UX design

Personas are among the most useful methods in user-centred product design. They make the results of user research readily available, thus becoming an important piece of a good user experience.

What are personas?

Let's start with the words of Alan Cooper, who introduced the persona method into the user experience design community. He defines personas as follows:

Personas are not real people, but they represent them throughout the design process. They are hypothetical archetypes of actual users.
Alan Cooper, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

Personas are thus not real, but realistic descriptions of users. They are archetypes, meaning not persons found somewhere, but also not purely inventions. On the contrary: an invented persona will certainly do a lot of harm, because it leads to wrong design decisions – you think you are designing for your users, but in reality you design around them because you do not even know them.

Personas represent target audiences, but are not identical to them

Example of a persona called "Michael" with detailed information
Personas make the results of user research readily available.

When I introduced the idea of personas in a marketing department, I looked into (seemingly) knowing eyes: right, target audience. But this is not exactly the case – personas represent target audiences, but they are not the same thing:

  • Target audiences are based on quantitative studies – you look for one (rarely a few) relevant parameter and study its occurrence in the population. Then you use these results to separate people into groups, for example the lifestyle based sinus milieus. Thus, target audiences make it easier to handle the many individuals in these groups, because they reduce complexity to a couple of parameters relevant for taking business decisions.
  • But designers need something else: empathy. They have to be able to put themselves in the position of the users, understanding their needs, emotions, and behavior. In order to do so, personas must not be average.

There is no such thing as the average person.
Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

This means: It is not useful to take a couple of statistics and combine the average results into a fictional character. Why? Because there are no really average people. In his book "Human Performance Engineering: A guide for systems designers", researcher R.W. Bailey studied 4,063 randomly selected people. His research question: How good is the fit of these people to average characteristics like height, weight, or height of knee? The results were clear:

  • 1,055 people, meaning 25.9% of the sample, corresponded roughly to the average height.
  • Taking a second characteristic into account, this number dropped to 302 people – only about 7.4% of the sample were average in two respects.
  • This number dropped even further when the researchers took more characteristics into account. After the tenth characteristic, there was nobody left.

This means: Thinking in averages in order to create a high reach is okay in marketing, where you reduce the population to one or a few relevant characteristics. But design is about looking holistically at people, taking their entire needs into account – and in this regard, thinking in averages is counterproductive, because it drops the typical human differences.

Personas are individually and vividly described representatives of the target group or a customer segment.
Marco Spies, Branded Interactions

Target audiences and personas are thus two sides of a medal, both trying to understand the needs and behavior of people. But while target audiences are about statistical representativeness, personas aim to be realistic descriptions of users, which then form the basis for design decisions.

Personas are based on user research

A good persona does thus not grow out of nothing, but is based on user research. Alan Cooper found that the results of this research are often too abstract to be a useful guide in the design process. Personas make these abstract results readily available. They cover all information necessary to make the needs of users comprehensible:

  • Identity of the persona: First, all personal information like name, age, profession, or family status is part of a persona.
  • Opinions, values, goals: Often information about goals and values, an individual motto, or the lifestyle of a persona is also of interest. In particular, aspects relevant for the product are valuable, like what frustrates or delights a persona. Furthermore, all character traits and skills important for the product should be considered.
  • Context of use: Finally, information about the context of product use helps. This includes the concrete motivations, frequency of use, and the environment in which product use takes place.

As a design tool, it is more important that a persona be precise than accurate.
Alan Cooper, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

However, too many details are also not advisable, because a persona needs to be accessible quickly. This is one of the advantages in using of the templates mentioned later, as they have limited space, so that designers have to focus on the most essential information.

How to use personas?

Personas are particularly useful for ideation and taking or communicating design decisions.

  • Personas help not to lose the focus on the user – you can put them at some place where they can easily be seen. Every design decision can thus be related to the persona: Would this solution account for the needs of the persona?
  • Their concrete nature makes personas very suitable for developing empathy with the users, an indispensable prerequisite for user-centred design of products. This is also why personas should be based on user research, so that designers do not take unrealistic fantasy persons as their guidelines.
  • Personas make brainstorming and ideation easier. In a study, Brangier et al. (2012, cited in Lallemand & Gronier 2015) were able to show that personas can lead to a higher number and better quality of ideas.
  • They are also a good method of communicating the results of research, being more friendly than a document with statistics.

However, personas are not without their problems. A big disadvantage is their static nature. Dynamic processes like the individual steps a user takes in the interaction with a product, cannot be easily represented in a persona. Therefore, they are often combined with other methods, like experience maps.

What types of personas are available?

Personas can be grouped into several types:

  • Primary personas represent the users which are of primary interest for the product. Ideally, a product should only target one primary persona, but this is not always possible. However, it is important to remember that the more primary personas there are in a project, the higher is the risk of not satisfying anybody in the end.
  • It is thus often better to work with several secondary personas. Their needs are to be considered, but only if they do not contradict the needs of the primary personas.
  • Negative personas are explicitly not part of the concept of a product. However, it can be useful to define these personas to get a clear picture of what the product should not do.
  • Buyer personas are particularly useful in business. They do not represent users, but decide which product users have to use. Her needs are thus important for successful products.
  • A concerned persona is herself not a user of the product, but is affected by its use. For example, the availability of cameras in smartphones and smart glasses can lead to pictures of bystanders. Concerned personas are thus important for ethical reasons, and social factors play a vital role in making a product a success or a failure.
  • Finally, it is possible to take disregarded people into account with the help of additional personas. In their book "Design for Real Life", Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher propose creating imperfect personas. They can help respecting special needs of people that do not harm other users. Consider accessibility, as it creates value for everybody. And think about how people use a product in a situation of crisis.

Furthermore, a persona can represent a group of people, like a whole family, if this makes sense for the project.

How many personas do I need?

Designers starting their work with personas often ask how many of them are necessary for a project. I often stumbled upon the numbers 3 to 7 (though handling more than three primary personas becomes difficult), but this depends heavily on the project. I think a vague answer makes more sense: as few as possible, but as many as necessary to cover all relevant needs.

How are personas represented? Which templates exist?

Personas build on being quickly available, ideally as a poster that can be put on the walls of the office. Most UX designers work with an attractive template, where all relevant characteristics are presented in a visual way and using short pieces of text.

There are no limits to creativity, and a couple of templates are available. Here are some of my favorites:

Persona template by Christof Zürn
Part of the persona template by Christof Zürn

License: Persona Core Poster by Christof Zürn, CC BY SA

In most cases, these templates should be adapted individually: every project needs slightly different information to create compelling personas. While in one project computer literacy might be very important, personal nutrition habits play a bigger role in another.

Portraits of people are also useful in order to give life to the personas. You can find examples on Pixabay or Pexels – but consider the license, as always with images!