Who Are These People?

User Experience Personas and What They're For

Posted by Matthew Farleo on 23rd Dec 2017

For a user experience (UX) designer to be successful in their field their primary tool in their toolbox is Empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The other in that definition, when viewed in the context of digital design is the User. In the initial phases of a digital project the user is defined by data points, analytics, and demographic groupings. These abstract concepts can be difficult for a person to connect with and understand. This is where the use of Personas comes in. Personas, in their many varieties, are what are typically used by UX professionals to represent groups of users.

What is a Persona and what is its purpose?

A persona is a tool that User Experience (UX) Designers use to maintain alignment with all members of a team on a website or digital project. They serve the purpose of helping to orient a project and can be used to help make informed decisions when user goals are called into question. A persona is defined as a representation of a specific type of user or customer, and it answers the question who are we designing for?

One way to interpret the definition of a persona is that essentially a model that represents a large group of similar users, similar to a stereotype in social sciences. However, unlike stereotypes that are based on generalities, true personas are based on ethnographic research, user interviews, and user observation. The purpose of this data gathering is so that the UX professionals building a digital product can make accurate and informed decisions. That being said, sometimes the upfront cost to do the research and create true personas can be daunting when starting a digital project. Typically this is why most small budget digital projects generally start with a Proto-Persona.

What is a proto-persona and how does it differ from a true persona?

A Proto-Persona (or Ad-Hoc Persona) is a persona that is created using a project stakeholder’s intuition and anecdotal evidence (“ad-hoc” meaning improvised or impromptu). These can be created in a variety of manners, However, they serve the same purpose as true personas, which to ensure alignment between all stakeholders on the project.

Therefore, primary difference between proto-personas and true personas is the lack of background research and study when considering proto-personas. Since these proto-personas are created in the absence of research they should be viewed as incomplete and only serve as a rough guideline of the users. As the project progresses and more is learned about the users (be it through A/B testing, user interviews, etc.) the proto-personas can be adjusted based on the research data. When used correctly proto-personas can be seen as a starting point on the journey to create more accurate, true personas.

Understanding the difference between these two types of personas will allow your team to better advocate for the needs of the users. Proto-personas should evolve based on research to ensure that you are getting the most accurate view of your users, which will in turn allow you to better anticipate their goals. Through this method of building better personas, your website, software, or app can evolve to always better serve the needs of its users.