Customer Personas: What Are They and Why You Should Care About Them
This blog was originally published on June 6th, 2011 and has been updated for context and relevance on November 18th, 2022.
When you think of “personas” – what comes to mind? Are personas profiles of hypothetical customers that marketing invented? Or, are personas developed from customer surveys asking what they want and don’t want from your website? Are they segments of your web visitors?
The answer to all the above is a resounding no.
What are Customer Personas?
Personas are fictional characters based on actual observed behaviors of real users that a UX (User Experience) professional experiences in the field, talking one-on-one with users. These customer profiles are a composite of this qualitative research, and are typically presented as 1-2 page documents.
How To Identify a Good Customer Persona
A good persona description is not a list of tasks or duties. It's a narrative that describes the flow of someone's day, as well as their skills, attitudes, environment, and goals. A persona answers critical questions that a job description or task list doesn't, such as:
- Which pieces of information are required at what points in the day?
- Do users focus on one thing at a time, carrying it through to completion, or are there a lot of interruptions?
- Why are they using this product in the first place?
- Where are they hanging out on the Internet? Instagram? Reddit? TikTok?
- How are they spending their free time?
- Income level?
- What are their common frustrations?
- Education level?
- Life Goals?
What a Customer Persona is NOT
A persona is not a demographic profile, a market segment or a summation of survey data. Rather, a persona is a combination of data modeled from ethnographic and behavioral user research, as well as narrative.
The term persona often gets clumped together with market research (surveys, focus groups, etc), and though they are not the same thing, market research can certainly complement persona studies.
Ethnographic Research 101
Ethnography is a qualitative method for collecting data often used in the social and behavioral sciences. Data is collected through observations and interviews, which are then used to draw conclusions about how societies and individuals function.
Ethnographic research is looking at behaviors in order to understand the "whys" and build around them. Observation is key, because what people do and say can be entirely different things. For example, a small business owner may report that she does not use paper anymore - all her record keeping is electronic. But if you look at her home office, you may find binders full of printouts of Excel reports and invoices.
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Ethnography: The Cure for the Common Customer
This is why ethnography, or fieldwork is a powerful tool. Think of Dr. Jane Goodall, famed English primatologist who was the first to observe chimpanzees making and using tools; a trait or behavior up until that point was thought of as distinctly human. Great insight comes from interaction and observation.
There are three primary techniques for gathering data for persona development:
- Interviews - think less Jimmy Fallon and more Larry King, Oprah, or a client relationship with a healthcare professional. These sessions are one-on-one, and are more like in-depth conversations full of probing questions.
- Fly on the Wall - more observational, where the interviewer may accompany the interviewee for a “day in the life” and ask questions.
- Master & Apprentice - where the interviewee teaches the interviewer a system they use or common tasks they perform.
The Benefits of Customer Personas
Personas can be really helpful for design and development planning. We’re often so focused on requirements we forget who's actually using the system.
- Identify opportunities and product gaps to drive strategy
- Provide a quick and cheap way to test, validate and prioritize ideas throughout development.
- Give focus to projects by building a common understanding of customers across teams.
- Help development teams empathize with users, including their behaviors, goals, and expectations.
- Serve as a reference tool that can be used from strategy through to implementation
When Should You Create Customer Personas?
Persona development should ideally start prior to any strategy. They are most effective when used to inform a strategy, that is, to hone in on specific opportunities to improve, innovate on, or fill other gaps, and are critical to have before making any significant changes to an existing project, or kicking off any innovation projects.
Q: What does the persona research and development process look like?
A: You begin with a research process that includes:
- Participant and research requirements gathering
- Recruiting and planning the study
- Conducting user research interviews
- Analysis and synthesis of interviews
- Creation of the persona profile
How Should Customer Personas be Applied?
Personas are primarily developed to help determine where there are opportunities and areas for improvement in a website or application's experience. This can guide the feature set and validate your UI design decisions. You may also find value in sharing your persona data with web marketing teams to apply to A/B tests and email campaigns, your web analytics team, customer service / sales organization and even to guide your personalization strategy.
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