By Frank Spillers

personas- user research best practices

Summary: Personas have very practical value, not only as tools to unify organizational understanding of the end-user, but also as specific instruments to make your designs more precise. An important ultimate step in your persona research will be to translate user data into design requirements. Since design personas are representations of end-user or customer behavior, it is important to capture and continuously transfer user needs to the design team throughout the design phase.

In our experience, the design phase is usually where the most difficult decisions are made with regard to the intended user experience, and the one that actually results. Good persona research will help prioritize and manage constraints that are beyond the design, such as technology legacy issues that exist in large organizations.

The following 5 steps will help ensure your personas help by-pass organizational obstacles and transfer in-tact to your design outcomes:

Step 1: Interrogate your data sources.

 The source of persona data is important both from a credibility perspective and a practical design viewpoint. Data can be gathered in two methods: qualitative (e.g. user interviews or observation) and quantitative (e.g. survey or traffic statistics). Balancing data methods provides the fullest picture of customer needs.

Quantitative data is often easiest to acquire in an organization, since it is more common than qualitative research. We have found that while harder to “sell” internally, having solid qualitative research can propel the decision making process.

Tip: Do qualitative and quantitative research for persona development. Each research type has its strengths as a vehicle to educate and persuade stakeholders coming from various backgrounds.

Step 2: Authenticate existing user intelligence/data.

Authentication should take the form of a “gap analysis”. Here are some questions to ask and find answers to:

  • What is known about customers?
  • Where is the data coming from?
  • Is data anecdotal?
  • Was data captured with motives other than usability requirements?
  • Who captured the data and what was their bias/background?
  • What are the organization’s beliefs about the users and how do they differ from reality?
  • What discrepancies exist between sales, marketing and senior management?
  • What feedback are users giving ad-hoc? (trade shows, events, on the website)
  • What has usability testing or usability research told you thus far about your customer needs?

Authenticating data sometimes involves balancing an influential person’s perceptions or generalizations about users, such as a senior manager, with the “words from the horse’s mouth”.  Persona authentication helps expose existing assumptions to new data and new awareness.

Further, authenticating persona data is useful to bring credibility to the data and can unify cross-functional team understanding of why user needs and usability issues are given such high importance.

Tip: Obtaining direct customer contact through open-ended interviews is a popular form of gathering “what they said” data. Often, having seen customers with your own eyes relieves you of guess-work when design choices or feature decisions are being made later on.

Step 3: Audit marketing and business requirements with user data.

Persona research data can bring balance to the tug-o-war politics that characterize the user interface design process. Marketing and business requirements are typically driving forces, but should be compared to and mediated with the actual goals and objectives of target customers or end-users.

Tip: Work closely with the business and marketing objectives of your design. Look for missed opportunities and new features that users want that will enhance the overall goals of the product. Do not overlook or under-represent business objectives in favor of user goals.

User data ought to compliment and help prioritize feature definition and scope of functionality.

Step 4: Mapping persona data to user interface concepts.

Having a clear mental picture of what the user wants is extremely valuable in negotiating and advocating for the best user experience possible.  The challenge is often to make the jump from user needs analysis data to user interface design choices. When you conduct persona research, be ready to map real-world user issues over to persona design questions.

Persona  data:

Routine Behavior

Design correlation:


Are the user’s most common tasks clear and apparent in the most visible area of the screen?

Persona  data:

Critical Incidents

Design correlation:


Is a recovery strategy apparent from confusion, user error, system error and navigation-related error?

Persona  data:

Triggers/ Touch points

Design correlation:


What information or actions does a user refer to on this screen? What elements advance or detract from user progress on this screen?

Persona  data:


Design correlation:


Is there a justification to continue with each path? Does the user have what is important to them on this screen?

Persona  data:

Habits and Expectations

Design correlation:


Does each screen have the most common elements? Is there a sense of familiarity on each screen based on the user’s goal?

Persona  data:

Interruptions/ Disturbances

Design correlation:


Is it easy to return to the task or is concentration required? Does navigation provide effective “where you are” status?

Above The following table illustrates how user data maps directly to actual design issues as they are specified for each screen.

Tip: When you are gathering user data for your personas, keep in mind how real life events will translate to the user interface or interaction design. Refer back to persona data as design issues and questions arise, and use persona data to justify or interpret interaction design choices.

Step 5: Interrogate your user interface designs

Think of personas as a means to advocating for user needs in the design phase. A technique we use is the persona walk-through.

The persona walk-through provides sanity in a typical design room where business, marketing and technology needs regularly compete with what of the end-user.


persona sample

Above: Primary persona “Admin Angie” illustrates the process a user would take to find and identify a desktop PC on The persona represents a small business user (under 100 people) and the three routes a user might take. The persona walk-through uncovers confusion, obstacles, redundancy and decision point issues the persona would find in her search.

A persona walk-through will help keep your user research close to the design. In any given scenario, the design can be validated by matching it to the primary and secondary goals of the user as well as their specific tasks.

Tip: Walk-through a comprehensive list of user scenarios with the current or proposed design. Note gaps, issues and concerns and propose alternative design options.

What has your experience with personas been?

Note: This also appeared in the excellent book The Personas Lifecyle.

Need to learn fast? Check this 90 minute webinar: Personas in Action webinar