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Using empathy in design Personas in user experience design

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Tags: user experienceusabilitypersonaUX design

Personas are among the most practical and flexible tools in human-centered product design. They make user research results tangible and are therefore important building blocks on the way to 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 (2004)

So personas are not real, but realistic descriptions of users. They are archetypes: not existing persons but not entirely fictional either. On the contrary, a made-up persona, called an ad hoc persona, can lead to bad design decisions. You think you're designing for your users, but you're designing past them because you don't even know them. Therefore, I want to exclude ad hoc personas in this article, although there is certainly evidence that they can be useful in certain circumstances (Nielsen, 2019). Rather, I would like to focus on personas that have been created based on user research. These personas are based on patterns of behavior from which specific needs of users can be derived (Cooper et al., 2014).

Personas represent target groups 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 a persona to a marketing department some time ago, I looked directly into (supposedly) knowing eyes: sure, target group. But that's not quite what personas are. They represent target groups, but they're not the same thing:

  • Target groups are based on quantitative surveys. You decide on one or rarely a few interesting parameters (for example, socio-demographic data or attitudes) and study their manifestation. Based on these observations, you divide people into groups, such as Sinus milieus, based on lifestyle. Target groups make the many individuals in these groups easier to handle because they reduce complexity to a few parameters that are considered relevant for business decisions.
  • Designers, however, need something else: empathy. They need to understand the user's needs, emotions, and behaviors. Personas take advantage of the human ability to put ourselves in other people's shoes and predict how these people might behave in defined situations. The detail and subjectivity of personas help us in this task (Grudin, 2006). Consequently, personas must not be average and reduce complexity too much.

There is no such thing as the average person.
Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things (2013)

That means: To create a persona, you can't just take a few statistics and combine the average results into a fictitious character. Why? Because there are no average people. In his book "Human Performance Engineering: A guide for systems designers", scientist R.W. Bailey studied 4,063 randomly selected people. His question: how closely do these people match average characteristics such as height, weight, and knee height? The results were clear:

  • 1,055 people, or 25.9% of the sample, roughly matched the average height.
  • However, adding a second characteristic, this number was reduced to 302 people – just 7.4% of the sample were still average in two characteristics.
  • These values went down rapidly when the researchers added more characteristics. After the tenth characteristic, no one was left.

This means that thinking in terms of averages and increasing reach in this way works quite well in marketing if you can reduce the population to one or a few characteristics. In design, however, it's about focusing on the whole person, with all their needs – and here, thinking in averages is counterproductive because it rationalizes away typical human differences.

Personas are individually and vividly described representatives of the target group or a customer segment.
Marco Spies, Branded Interactions (2015)

Target groups and personas are thus two sides of the same coin: the attempt to understand people's needs and behaviors. But while target groups are about statistical representativeness, personas aim at realistic descriptions of users as the basis of design decisions.

Market segments are considered when recruiting participants for interviews. Personas are then derived
Market segments and personas: Recruiting participants for interviews can be done from market segments. Personas are then derived from the findings of these interviews.

How to use personas?

Personas are a great tool, especially for generating ideas and making and communicating design decisions. They have several advantages:

  • Personas help keep the focus on the user – you can hang them up somewhere easily visible, and every design decision can be related to the persona: Would this solution meet their needs?
  • Due to their concrete nature, personas are well suited for developing empathy with the users – an indispensable prerequisite for user-centered product design. This is also why UX professionals should create personas based on user research instead of using made-up, unrealistic personas.
  • Personas simplify brainstorming and generating ideas. Brangier et al. (2012, cited in Lallemand & Gronier 2015) showed in a study that personas can lead to a higher number and better quality of ideas.
  • They are also a good tool to communicate the research results – more inviting than a document with statistics.

However, personas are not without their problems. For example, a particularly large number of criticisms relate to ad hoc personas because they are not based on research with users. In this case, the risk of false assumptions is high. However, even personas created after extensive research have their downsides (Salminen et al., 2018):

  • For example, personas are not easy to validate as a qualitative method. Therefore, various researchers and UX experts have developed methods to derive personas from quantitative data, such as analytics data for the automated creation of personas (Salminen et al., 2019) or surveys that are transformed into persona clusters using exploratory factor analysis (McGinn & Kotamraju, 2008). Automated personas can also be easier to update as user behavior changes (Salminen et al., 2019).
  • There are ways to validate qualitative personas as well. I have integrated some of these in the process below.
  • Another major drawback is that personas are ultimately static documents. Dynamic processes, such as the individual steps users take in interacting with a product, are not well represented by personas. For this reason, they are often combined with other methods, such as experience maps.

What types of personas exist?

Personas can be divided into different types according to their importance:

  • Primary personas represent the primary users of a product or service. Ideally, there should be one primary persona, but of course, this is not always achievable. However, it is important to consider that the more primary personas are to be considered in a project, the greater the risk that the product will end up satisfying no one.
  • It is usually better to work with several secondary personas. Their needs are considered, but only if they do not conflict with those of the primary personas.
  • Negative personas are explicitly not part of the concept of a product. However, it can still help define them to get a clearer picture of what the product shouldn't do. This can help to differentiate the product from the competition.
  • Especially in the business environment, it can be helpful to create a Buyer Persona (Customer Persona or Buyer Persona). In business contexts, another person often decides which products and services are purchased for the respective users. Therefore, a Buyer Persona does not directly represent a user but represents someone who decides which product the later users will use. Their needs are, therefore, quite significant.
  • A concerned persona does not use a product or service itself but is influenced by its use. For example, the availability of cameras in smartphones and smart glasses can lead to pictures being taken of bystanders. From an ethical point of view, in particular, these affected personas are of great importance – and social factors play a decisive role in the success or failure of numerous products.
  • Many products and services impact humanity and have consequences for animals, plants, and the environment. Designer Monika Sznel has therefore proposed using non-human personas in a article for the UX Collective. Human-centered design thereby becomes an approach to looking at the impact on complex systems and designing the future.
  • Finally, there is the possibility of using additional personas to include previously neglected people in your design. In their book "Design for Real Life", Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher encourage consciously paying attention to a wide variety of constraints when setting personas. This can help consider people whose needs are not common but do not harm other users. Pay attention to accessibility – it benefits everyone equally. And consider how someone handles a product in a crisis.
  • The persona spectrum method goes one step further. One problem with inclusive design is that it is difficult to map the multitude of limitations in static personas – this would require quite a few additional personas. Microsoft's Inclusive Design Toolkit defines three types of constraints: permanent, temporary, and situational, each of which can apply to all senses. So, for example, a visual constraint can mean that a person is blind (permanent constraint), suffers from eye disease (temporary constraint), or is distracted (situational constraint). The toolkit proposes the persona spectrum method to consider these constraints. Thus, instead of assuming fixed properties attributed to a persona, designers consider how their properties move along a permanent, temporary, and situational spectrum. Such a persona spectrum thus considers the influence of context, as Doug Kim on Medium puts it.

It should also be kept in mind that there are differences between authors writing about personas (Floyd et al., 2008; Nielsen, 2019). For example, different authors have different emphases and focus more on goals (Cooper), roles (Adlin, Pruitt & Grudin), or engagement through storytelling (Nielsen).

How do you create personas?

Personas are best based on research with users. Alan Cooper has observed that the results from research are often too abstract to serve as a guide in the design process. Personas make these abstract results tangible. They include all the information needed to make users' needs understandable:

  • Identity of the persona: First of all, this includes all personal information such as name, age, profession, or marital status.
  • Attitudes, values, goals: Often, information on values and goals, an individual motto, or the lifestyle of a persona are also of interest. Particular focus is on aspects relevant to the product, such as what frustrates or delights a persona. Also, consider any character traits or skills important to the product.
  • Context of Use: Finally, information about the context in which a persona will use the product or service is important. This includes their specific intentions for using a product or service, how often they will use it, and in what environment.

Human-centered design only works when human needs are placed at the center of the design. However, the diversity of these human needs is high. Therefore, the goal of personas is to represent this diversity by highlighting the typical patterns (Cooper et al., 2014). However, there should not be too many details either so that the persona remains quickly graspable. This is an advantage of using one of the templates mentioned below – space is limited from the outset, so you have to concentrate on the essential information.

As a design tool, it is more important that a persona be precise than accurate.
Alan Cooper, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum (2004)

Various authors have suggested how best to create personas (Acuña et al., 2012; Cooper et al., 2014; Grudin & Pruitt, 2003; Nielsen, 2019). The various processes certainly have some differences. Here, I create a proposal that takes various ideas from the literature and synthesizes them. In this context, the development of personas can be divided into four phases with several steps. However, it is unnecessary to go through all of these steps in every project – it is more important that the personas work for the project in question and adequately describe the project's target group.

Visualization of a process for creating personas, with twelve steps in four phases. The visualization corresponds to the text description in the following sections
Process for creating personas in four phases

Phase 1: Definition and data collection

Personas stand and fall with the data on which they are based. In the beginning, it is, therefore, advisable to define exactly which target groups are to be considered for the creation of personas.

  • Step 1 – Define target groups for the following data collection: The starting point for the target groups are often previous studies, such as market research, opinion polls, or scientific studies (Grudin & Pruitt, 2003; Nielsen, 2019), but also your reflections and observations. You can use these data to create an overview of potential users for the interviews. This overview is used to recruit individuals for data collection. Some authors also recommend developing hypotheses (Acuña et al., 2012): what do we think our users are like? These hypotheses allow us to test our assumptions.
  • Step 2 – Recruit participants and collect data: Typically, interviews with people from the identified target groups are conducted to collect data, sometimes combined with observations (such as in the contextual interview or Contextual Inquiry, where users are observed in real contexts and asked about the different steps of their activities). The aim here is to gain as much knowledge about the potential users as possible – especially in-depth knowledge about motivations and goals.

Phase 2: Defining criteria (variables) for personas

Once the data has been collected, the next step is to analyze it to create the basis for the subsequent personas. In the case of personas, this means, in particular, working out the criteria (or variables) and their characteristics in which the personas will differ.

  • Step 3 – Define variables: All actions, values, motivations, and abilities could be criteria that distinguish personas from one another (Cooper et al., 2014). All criteria observed during data collection are first listed as candidate variables. Here, variables representing behaviors and attitudes are especially important. If it is difficult to crystallize variables from a large amount of data, Acuña and colleagues (2012) recommend grouping the raw data into sets of typical behaviors.
  • Step 4 – Determine expressions of variables: Once the list of variables is in place, each variable is converted into a scale. This is done by defining the two poles based on the observed data (Acuña et al., 2012). If necessary, intermediate steps can, of course, be included.
  • Step 5 – Arrange subjects: Next, all subjects who participated in the data collection are positioned on the scales. The relative position of the subjects to each other is more important than the absolute position (Cooper et al., 2012).
  • Step 6 – Identify patterns: The final step is to identify patterns in the distribution on the variable scales. Are more price-sensitive individuals willing to put up with longer searches for the cheapest product? To obtain answers to such questions, it is important to look for clusters where users find themselves in similar positions across multiple variables (Cooper et al., 2012). Approximately six to twelve similar positions on the variable scales are considered a rule of thumb to identify a significant cluster (Acuña et al., 2012). These patterns form the basis for subsequent personas. Clusters should be defined according to interrelationships, not random overlaps in variables that are unrelated in content.
Graphic with four scales representing different knowledge visualization insights. Six users from the interviews are arranged in it.
Example from interviews about knowledge visualization: Users' attitudes were arranged on scales from which patterns of typical clusters can be derived. These patterns form the basis for the later personas.

Phase 3: Creating personas

Phase 3 transitions to the creative part of persona creation after the more analytical work of identifying and analyzing variables.

  • Step 7 – Create foundation documents for personas: The identified clusters are transformed into personas. Grudin and Pruitt (2003) recommend a document for each persona (Persona Foundation Document), which contains the central characteristics. It synthesizes details from the data collection for each discovered pattern into the persona descriptions. A focus should be on the personas' goals concerning the digital product or service being designed (Cooper et al., 2014).
  • Step 8 – Review: During persona creation, it can quickly happen that duplications creep in or something important is forgotten. Therefore, a check follows the persona creation. Cooper et al. (2014) recommend that each persona should differ in at least one identified pattern. Acuña et al. (2012) recommend discussing the personas one by one and recording these discussions as part of the validation.
  • Step 9 – Formulate personas: Finally, the basic documents are formulated into persona descriptions, and the role that a persona should take is defined, for example, whether it is a primary or secondary persona (Cooper et al., 2014; Acuña et al., 2012).
  • Step 10 – Validate personas: Personas are already based on empirical data, but in some cases, revalidation is useful because personas include fictional elements. You can use discussions with participants from the respective target groups to evaluate whether the personas are plausible or should be changed (Nielsen, 2019). Finally, it is possible to record how people perceive the personas, for example, with the help of the "Persona Perception Scale" (Salminen et al., 2018).

Phase 4: Using personas

To ensure that personas don't end up in a drawer, UX designers can do several things after they've been created to establish personas in a project and increase their usefulness.

  • Step 11 – Work with personas: Personas are introduced in a kick-off meeting and then made available through various materials such as posters, flyers, or handouts (Grudin & Pruitt, 2003). Teams must gain experience using personas – this is a central factor for accepting the persona method (Salminen et al., 2020). UX experts can guide the adoption of personas by encouraging them to be integrated into conception, design, and development processes. For example, Grudin and Pruitt (2003) suggest prioritizing feature requests according to personas (see box). Personas can, of course, also be used in combination with other processes, such as to create scenarios (Acuña et al., 2012; Nielsen, 2019).
  • Step 12 – Keep personas current: Personas may become outdated or prove less useful over time than hoped. Therefore, Lene Nielsen (2019) recommends reviewing and updating personas every two years or so. This may mean changing individual personas, creating new personas, or removing personas that have become irrelevant. Reasons for such updates can be, for example, that usage habits have changed, new technologies have emerged, or social developments should be taken into account.

How many personas do I need?

Anyone who has just started working with personas often wonders how many are needed for a project. Often in my research, I've come up with the number 3-7 (though more than three primary personas become difficult), but of course, that depends heavily on the project. A less concrete answer makes more sense: as few as possible, but as many as necessary to cover all relevant needs.

How are personas represented? What templates exist?

Personas need to be presented in a way that can be quickly grasped, such as a poster to hang in the office for inspiration. Therefore, most UX designers work with an attractive template on which all relevant characteristics are presented visually and with short text modules. There are various recommendations on what should be included in a persona. The most common are demographic information, personality, use of technologies, product-related goals and tasks, and daily living and working environment. But other content is also possible if it is appropriate for a project, such as brand relationship (Nielsen et al., 2015). Ultimately, it is a matter of making personas as useful as possible for the particular project to which they relate.

There are no limits to creativity when working with them. There are countless templates for personas. 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, you should customize the templates a bit: each project needs slightly different information to create compelling personas. While computer skills are very important in one project, in another, personal eating habits play a bigger role.

Portraits of people are also handy for breathing life into personas. The photos should depict a persona as realistically as possible and in situations that suit them. Unusual perspectives and poses or exaggerated expressions are rather unsuitable (Cooper et al., 2014). You can find what you are looking for, for example, at Pixabay or Pexels – as always with images, pay attention to the license! Grudin and Pruitt (2003) advise against stock photos because they are too generic – they recommend dedicated photoshoots. A useful alternative is using collections of portraits generated by artificial intelligence, such as Generated Photos or This Person Does Not Exist. Also, think about the name of a persona. Often names are chosen from which one can conclude the role of a persona. Andrew Schall provides in a Medium article many useful tips for the Naming of Personas.

An interesting variant was presented by a research team around Tuck Wah Leong at CHI 2021: the Experiential Persona. By this, they mean that instead of two-dimensional posters and similar methods, physical artifacts from the participants' lives allow designers to put themselves in their shoes.


Personas are a flexible method to make user research results tangible and embed them in the entire design and development process. They can be important documents for communication and understanding, enabling all project participants to keep the user inside. The process is also constantly evolving to address criticisms. So it pays to consider personas in a user experience project.