What are user personas? UX Question #73

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Ellis from New York asks: What are user personas?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Ellis. This is UX Question number 73 and I am Ben Judy.

What are user personas? Well, personas are made-up user profiles. They’re usually short documents, just a single page. You create them based on user research, and they provide an archetype—or a representation—of a typical user of your website or app.

User personas serve to unify a product team around a shared understanding of who the product is for. A good persona captures a user’s needs, experiences, behaviors, and goals.

As I mentioned back in episode 65, bias is a problem for UX practitioners. I’m naturally biased to assume that other people are like me. Building understanding and empathy takes some effort. To think about and feel what it might be like to have different knowledge, different abilities, different needs.

A good set of user personas will help a product team counteract and overcome bias. They help us build empathy and design better experiences for our users.

Personas make the entire design process more focused. They can help guide ideation exercises, and they can save us time and money on testing because if we design for the personas, we’re hypothetically already passing the usability test—although, to be clear, you should still do usability testing.

So, personas are great! They’re really helpful. But like any UX artifact or method, they can be problematic.

One common problem with personas is that the information included in the user profile is not validated by research. What can happen is, people learn the format of personas. They know what one looks like as a document. So they create them, but instead of doing the hard work of conducting unbiased research and synthesizing the findings, they instead start design work based on a user persona full of assumptions or wishes.

Personas aren’t meant to paint a picture of the ideal user or the user that lives only in your head. They’re meant to be a distillation of important facts and insights that are true about real people.

There’s much more that can be said about user personas. I’ve included links to some really good articles in the description, be sure to check those out.

Before I finish, I’ll briefly mention another potential problem with personas is that they present a narrow picture of who your user is. Whatever information you include—their likes or dislikes, abilities and disabilities, preferences and traits—all necessarily means you are excluding people who aren’t like that. There is a more inclusive alternative to traditional user personas called persona spectrums. I’ll examine that method in the next episode.

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: what are user persona spectrums?

Referenced in this episode:

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