Build a Persona, not a Character

Recently, before the start of a new project, I decided to do some searching for examples of Personas to see if there was anything interesting or new out there. What I noticed was UX designers diving really deeply into personal facts about their Personas. On multiple occasions, I saw things like exact income, what university they graduated from, what video games they’re currently playing, and what beverages they consume regularly.

Now, depending on the project you’re working on, knowing the games that someone is playing might be relevant, but I kept seeing these stats and distinctions on Personas for projects where they would be completely useless, or worse, might distract from the core goals of the product. Without a specific need for these details, they run the risk of turning a Persona into a Character.

Archetypes, not characteristics

The benefits of a Persona are widely documented; they provide teams with an understanding of some of the core users of a site or product. These can be current users or users the client wants to attract. They are meant to give designers a general idea of each user’s goals, pains, motivations, and background so that we can take their needs into account all the way through the design process.

It’s important to remember that Personas are not one specific person. They are a group of people who share traits that we feel are important to the ultimate goals of a project. For this reason, it’s better to use ranges for demographic descriptors. Sara is 25-35. She has kids or is planning on having a family. She’s been in retail management for about a decade. She’s got some college but not a master’s degree. They paint a broad picture of a type of user.

However, when you start diving into specific birthdays, favorite sports teams, or hobbies you diverge from creating a persona into the realm of creating a character. You’re building backstory and personality traits of a specific person. This amount of detail could potentially hinder your UX.

Howso? Well, imagine instead of using a range of $50k-$100k salary, you peg it at the high end and mention they’re into “aviation” as a hobby. This information might lead us to believe this is a person with a fair amount of disposable income and from there, we might bury the “Sale” section of an eCom app and push exclusive limited releases to the forefront.

If you’re using ranges without specific information, you get a wider view of the user. A user making $50k and one making $100k likely have quite different tastes and habits. But if you use a range, you gain a wider, more useful look at the user. They aren’t necessarily always on the lookout for bargains, but probably aren’t going to jump at the chance to own a limited edition pair of sneakers. Similarly, without the arbitrary tagging of a specific interest, you avoid the pitfall of making assumptions based on something that’s essentially extraneous.

OK. Sometimes, It Matters

Now, I don’t want this whole idea of “don’t be specific” to overshadow one important fact: sometimes, using specifics is crucial. What’s important is to use them in the right instances for the right projects. The information that you outline in a Persona should be directly linked to the goals and functionality of the project.

Context is key in building personas.

Building a fashion recommendation app and using a Persona that describes a user’s favorite movie? Kinda useless. But outlining the last three stores they purchased clothing from? Bingo.

Designing a website for a marketing automation firm and developing a persona that likes skiing? Um, why? But listing the marketing blogs they read or the influencers they follow? Perfect.

Context is key in building personas. Providing the right context will create better goal-oriented projects. However, at best, creating arbitrary characteristics is useless, but at worst it hinders the usability and success of a project.