Journey Mapping

The basics of user personas

18. February 2020

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The basics of user personas

In this article we explain what user or customer personas are, why they are important and what you need to consider when creating them. We also provide you with a persona template so that you can get started right away.

Let’s kick off with this four minute video: you learn what a persona is and what you’ll have to consider when illustrating it.

If you are looking for more detailed information, take a look at the rest of this article. Here we will provide you with the most important information about journey maps and how to work with them. We will cover the following questions:

What is a persona?

Personas are fictional profiles representing a group of people, such as users, potential customers or employees – as well as their mindsets, their needs and behavior patterns. After defining the characteristics of your persona(s), you can use them in your daily work. The most important idea of using personas is emphasizing: Try to walk in the shoes of someone else, such as your customer’s (also user’s, employee’s or citizen’s) shoes.

Sketch of a persona template for a persona names Tess
A persona is a fictional character that helps you to better emphasize with your user or customer.

Often personas are used to describe customer or user segments. Creating personas can lead to new insights who your customers really are and why they are using your products or services. Personas help to give a team a shared understanding of their customers and are a valuable basis for journey maps and stakeholder maps, as well as many other tools.

Types of personas

When trying to get information about personas, you will probably find several different terms and types of personas online. Each of these terms have a slightly different meaning, which we would like to clarify in the following table:

Customer personaCustomer personas represent the different target customer groups of your business. Different customer personas allow you to gain a better understanding for your customer segments and let you target them appropriately. A customer is not necessarily a buyer persona, just think of a customer that is using a free software without paying for it.
Buyer personaBuyer personas represent the different types of actual buyers of your products, so the persons who make the decision about the purchase. Different buyer personas can show different motivations for their purchase, also they might differ in their purchasing power and purchase history. A buyer persona is not necessarily the user of your product, for example when a company buys software for their employees.
User personaUser personas represent the different types of actual end-users of your product. The person using your product does not necessarily have to be the same person as the one buying your product, just think of adults buying toys for their children.
Website (User) personaWebsite user personas represent the different types of users visiting your website. In contrast to user and buyer personas, a website user does not necessarily interact with your product, maybe they only read your online content.

This typification depends on the scope and zoom-level you want to apply to your project, for a high-level customer journey you should be fine with using a general persona. If you want to dive deeper, however, the differentiation above might help you to better understand the different types of personas you are interacting with.

How many personas?

So how many of these “fictional profiles” should you create? The answer differs from organization to organization and from project to project, but to give a rule-of-thumb guideline: you will probably need between three to seven core customer personas. It’s unlikely that you’ll have less than three different target groups. It is however likely that you won’t really use personas in your work if you’d have more than seven of them. You simply wouldn’t really remember them. Besides your core personas, you can have many more extreme case personas to test ideas from rather extreme points-of-view.

Why do I need a persona?

Icons of five personas and one speech bubble as a symbol for creating a common language with personas
Working with personas helps to create empathy, get a common understanding of your customers and test ideas.

Creating empathy

Personas illustrate for whom a product or service is created for. They represent your target group and allow to slip into their shows. It’s easy to empathize with personas and you’ll easily understand your customer’s need and context-of-use. In contrast, it is really hard to empathize when you visualize a target group through e.g. an excel chart. The data is just too abstract. When you see the world from your customer’s perspective, determining what data is useful and what data is not becomes a lot easier.

Getting a team on the same page

Personas are simple illustrations to communicate research data within a team. Without a lot of knowledge, everybody can follow research findings and get a picture of what your target group looks like.  When everybody shares the same understanding of their customers, building consensus on important issues becomes easier as well.

Testing with personas

Use personas to test your ideas for new or improved products, services, or features. You can slip into your customers’ shoes and go through different scenarios with your persona(s) in mind. If it’s likely that your persona would have problems with a feature or gets frustrated when using your product or service, your real customers probably have difficulties as well.

How to define and create a persona?

A persona is generally defined like a real person. It usually has a name, description, and characteristics. Define which background (education, job position) your persona has, to make the description even more precise.
Describe both the person as a human being (background story, personality, interests, etc.) and as a stakeholder in context of a service ecosystem (needs, expectations, etc.).

The following example illustrates the key points a basic persona profile usually contains:

This exemplary template of our persona Anna shows her image, communication channels, a quote, her expectations, her jobs to be done and much more.

Profile picture: Use an authentic photo that expresses your persona’s character.

Name: Give the persona a name that matches your target group. Choose a name that reflects your persona’s heritage and social environment. Try to make it real – your team might have to live with this name for longer. 

Quote: This could describe your persona’s attitude in one sentence. Ask yourself: What would help team members to empathize with this fictional person?

However make sure to not be too biased by the demographics. For example, if your persona is a prince born in 1948, British citizen, grown in London and fancies cars and good wine – it could be Prince Charles, but also Ozzy Osbourne.

Occupation: Where does your persona work? What does she do (status)? Add information about the company (e.g. size, type, etc.) and her career (goals).  

Description: There is not one recipe to describe a persona. Use this field to describe further stories and characteristics. What does a typical day look like? What are favorite places to go? 
Add additional information, such as expectations, education, hobbies, interests, motivations etc. This will always depend on the focus of your project. For example, it might be interesting to add a section for favorite channels and devices if you’re looking to improve your cross-channel communication. Or it might be interesting to name past experiences if you’re trying to optimize a journey to personas who have made use of your service in the past.

Mood images: Enrich your persona with contextual photos of their lives. What does their home or work place look like? What’s in their purse? What are their hobbies? Humans are brilliant at understanding and empathizing with images and will have an easy time grasping a persona’s personality.

Icon and color:. The small stripes on the icon mark that this is a persona – other than a simple stakeholder with no further characteristics.

Tips for starters:

#1 Personas need to be updated. You should always be conducting research, talking to your users and questioning your personas. As technology and trends tend to change from time time, your personas will also do so!

#2 Spread it all. Personas should be shared with everybody in your company in order to make the best out of your data!

#3 Keep it short and simple. All information about your persona should be summarized on 1 page! Any member of your team should be able to look at this document and absorb all the main information in a few minutes. 

#4 Work online. A persona software helps to collaborate with geographically dispersed teams and quickly iterate on personas.

How to research a customer persona?

If you now ask yourself where you get all the information you need to develop personas, start by preparing a list of questions you want to answer. For example if you want to research a customer persona:

Profession:

  • What is the customer’s role in the company?
  • What type of company does the customer work for?
  • What level of education has the customer achieved?
  • What are the customer’s biggest challenges at work?
  • What are the customer’s career goals?

Home & Hobbies:

  • What does the customer like to do for fun?
  • What does the customer read for fun?
  • What is the customer’s gender/age/household income?
  • Who lives with the customers at home?
  • Where does the customer live? 
  • How does the customer spend his/her free time?
  • What is important to your customer?
  • What are his/her needs?

Technologies:

  • How tech savvy is the buyer?
  • Which social networks does the customer prefer?
  • How does the customer prefer to communicate?
  • Who does your customer turn to for advice or information?
  • How do they make decisions and how long does it take them? What influences their decisions?
  • How does your customer respond to change?
  • How does his/her buying behavior look like?

The next step is to choose from different types of data sources. Which data source you use depends on your personal preference and on the type of data you are looking for. 

Three boxes for different customer groups, each showing different icons of different colors and interests.
Use different data sources to collect different kinds of information for your personas.

Check your website and social media analytics programs. They can’t tell you who your target customers should be, but they can provide demographic data about the users who are currently interacting with your website and social profiles. Google Analytics for example gives you insights on where your visitors live as well as age, gender, affinity, and technology. 

For elements that can’t be seen through data analytics, surveys are a simple way to collect customer data fast. Many survey tools offer suggestions for how to word certain demographic questions to ensure you get the most accurate responses and avoid any confusion. You can also generate an enormous amount of information by sending surveys containing the questions listed above to your existing customer base. If possible, consider offering a small incentive (like a coupon or free sample product) to customers that complete your survey.

Traditional market research can also be an option – if you have the budget. Investing in focus groups or one-on-one interviews with your target group can provide great data for your personas. Also, such qualitative research methods will give you deep knowledge about your customers’ feelings and motivations that sometimes can not properly be tackled by quantitative research.

Ask your employees. The people that work for you generally know the most about your customers, because they made the most experiences with your target group.  Especially the sales or support departments occupy lots of customer based information. 

Make guesses based on past experiences. If you’re short on money, you can always answer the questions based on your own observations. However, keep in mind that this data won’t be completely objective and not enough to inform your future marketing initiatives. Make sure to challenge your assumptions in the long run and back them up with real data.

Ad-hoc vs. data-driven personas

Personas should ideally be based on some kind of research and often represent a group of people with shared interests, common behavior patterns, or demographical and geographical similarities. However, such patterns or commonalities are sometimes rather misleading, so be careful to avoid obvious stereotypes.

That being said, personas can also be based on assumptions. We distinguish between two different types of personas: ad-hoc and data-driven Personas. Ad-hoc personas are rather simple and quick personas often created during a workshops for example with frontline staff (e.g. support). Data-driven personas are based on research data (qualitative and quantitative) from various sources, such as interviews, observations, design research, surveys, statistics, etc.

Here is a rough overview of the differences between Ad-hoc and Data-driven personas:

A matrix showing the difference between ad-hoc (easy, cheap and guessed) and data-driven (complex, expensive and reliable) personas
The resources you have at hand have great influence on whether ad-hoc personas or data-driven personas are the suitable option for you.

⇨ Pro Tip: The bigger your budget, the more precise the definition of your target group should be!

Customer or user persona templates

There exist multiple templates that guide you through the creation process. 

If you want to use them in a workshop, we recommend using printable pen & paper templates. They make it easier for you to develop personas within a group before working on them online. Get our persona pen & paper templates here.

Empty template to create a persona including a name, quote, key attributes and a description.
This is how a persona template could look like. Feel free to use it!

As a next step you can switch to an online tool wit more features and details, digitize your persona and share it with your team.


Antonia keeps her eyes open for questions people interested in service design are looking to answer, and helps us provide resources to support their learning ambitions. With her background in digital communication she has great knowledge on how to create content that is easy to access and understand.