By Frank Spillers

woman taking ask off

Summary: Personas are used routinely in design organizations. Beyond a tool to socialize customer profiles throughout the company, quality persona development is extremely important for bringing high impact results to your design efforts. Functional personas help bring vital empathy and data-based decision-making to teams.  

Personas need to be made functional for better product development. Using associating adjectives to capture role-based activities within a persona, can improve the usefulness and functional benefits of personas. 

Unmasking personas

Persona means "mask" in Latin. Personas are commonly found on the desks of Product Managers, Business Analysts and UX teams. They are considered an essential of UX, but oftentimes their value and utility are often diminished due to a lack of clarity of the functional UX purpose of a persona.

Two principles

1. Personas need to be viewed as behaviors, not people. 
2. Personas are there to guide (behavioral) flows in the Interaction or Service Design phase. 

 Let's be clear, the only mask we should be concerned with uncovering, from a user experience perspective, is the behavioral one. In other words, what can we uncover about current behaviors (actions, motivations, problem-solving) that can influence product or UI/UX strategy or direction?

Why worry about your personas? Personas have become corrupted by too many bad templates (most of them miss key data capture points), especially the kind found in UX Design tools.

First, what style are your personas? 

Like clothing style choices, e.g. dress pants/trousers vs. jeans-- the style of your persona will determine how far your team benefits from the deeper function of personas.

There are two primary styles of personas. For UX design efforts, the persona that we want to focus on is the design persona. 

1 Marketing Personas (Look or make this as a sketch of who you are targeting from a marketing/business perspective).

  • Demographic oriented: Age, sex, education level, income level, marital status, occupation...
  • Reveal the customer, segment or target audience. 
  • Empathy light

2 Design Personas (Create this on as part of your UX Design Personas & User Journeys).

  • Behavior oriented: goals, roles, tasks, needs and desires.
  • Reveal the behavior and context of use surrounding a customer, segment or target audience. 
  • Empathy rich: pain-points, problem-solving, decision-making, sense-making data.

persona styles- marketing vs design samples

Image abovel: Samples comparing Marketing vs Design personas. Note, this issue is covered by Frank Spillers (Experience Dynamics) in the book The Persona Lifecycle

The AA hack (associating adjectives)

Persona naming is a huge problem. Typical first-person names are given to personas, "James, Susan, Thomas, Garret, Ichiro, Tina, Davinder". The problem with this naming convention is it pulls your mind back to seeing these as real people vs behavioral composites. 

Two more principles

1. A persona represents a role. A role is based on functions typical users perform. These functions include goals, roles, tasks, needs and desires.

2. Name your personas with memorable pet names (associating adjectives) that characterize the role/function. These names make a composite of like group behavior, motivations and needs.

Example and how-to associate adjectives

Example: Instead of "Wendy", describe the "persona" or mask: "Label Wrangler Wendy". Label Wrangler Wendy is a persona we identified in a field study with our client Esha Research. This persona represents the primary need of users to get the correct food label presented on products, as part of their compliance managment tasks. 
How-To: Associating adjectives are easy! e.g. Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton "Crooked Hillary", to frame her as corrupt. This is a taunting technique he learned from Muhammed Ali, who did the same to his opponents.
1. Provide a name with a similar descriptive function. 2. Try using the same letters e.g. "P"= "Panicked Peggy" (parents concered with their child's social media use), or "Details Dan" (users who want to review the specifics). 

Two quick ROI stories

1. Years ago, we visited a product manager at Microsoft, who said "we're struggling with our personas". A poster was displayed on his wall with 30 "personas" (John, Bob, Mike, Sari, Tina, Tom...) consisting of what felt like Marketing personas, not a role, or composite of user behavior (a Design persona). Quick fix suggested? Name them with an associating adjective: "Musical Mike".

2. When we delivered an initial persona development report for our client Chrome Data, Chief Strategy Officer, Peter Batten said:

"I think your User Expectation Profiling document is a big step in the right direction. I have seen how defining a customer experience by segments (e.g. demographic, psychographic, behavioral etc.) allows a much richer discussion of the "user profile"/ target market at the PAC/executive level. While we might fight over the relative value of features all day long, we all can easily agree that "Trusting Trina" doesn't want tech specs."

Having senior leadership and the entire team understand the behavioral and purchase decision impact of customer motivations; the "do" versus the "who", is a key ROI benefit of personas. Forrester Research has found that teams using personas can gain an ROI of 4X from using them in a redesign. 
In an interview in 2004, early for persona widespread use, Frank Spillers (Experience Dynamics) interviewed Harley Manning (Forrester) who has been doing amazing work for years at Forrester on customer and user experience. He said:
"Create a shared understanding of customers and their goals by embracing personas. This is the thing to do if you do nothing else. Personas get you cross-company buy-in on who the most important customer segments are and what they want and need, which in turn provides an instant litmus test for whether you're making good design decisions or bad ones".
Notice his use of the word segments. For many organizations, the Marketing persona alone can be highly valuable. However, doing UX design with Design personas is a lot more valuable, we have not found. 
Again, personas are used to influence design choices. The goal of persona-driven design is to influence user behavior. Your understanding of that behavior should be expressed as a user role or persona. But remember: Your persona snapshots are only as good as the data that went into them.

Where to get data for your personas?

Persona development should come from behavioral observations/ interviews and Field trips or Ethnography (culture study).
Never, ever make up personas-- even as a placeholder (well maybe a discussion item). Real data and real behaviors can never be anticipated. Check this past post for the 5 Steps for aligning persona research to design