What makes a good persona?

Personas are widely used in the user experience world to capture the desires, needs and behaviours of user groups. But what makes a good persona?

[Also have a look at the personas we developed for the EBI resdesign] [ – ed ]

David Travis, a usability consultant at Userfocus in London, has written about how to create personas your design team will believe in. David believes that “many personas are little more than anecdote, hearsay and rumour” and are therefore of little value.  He suggests that if you can answer ‘yes’ to the following questions, then you’ve got a good persona:

  1. Is the persona based on contextual interviews with real customers?
  2. Does the persona evoke empathy by including a name, a photograph and a product-relevant narrative?
  3. Does the persona appear realistic to people who deal with customers day-to-day?
  4. Is each persona unique, having little in common with other personas?
  5. Does the persona include product-relevant high-level goals and include a quotation stating the key goal?
  6. Is the number of personas small enough for the design team to remember the name of each one, with one of the personas identified as primary?
  7. Can the development team use the persona as a practical tool to make design decisions?

While points 2 to 7 are uncontroversial, you might argue with point 1 (“is the persona based on contextual interviews with real customers?”). Contextual interviews are a great way to understand your users, but they’re also time-consuming and labour-intensive. What happens if you’re on a tight budget? What if you already know a lot about your users through customer support, for example?

Step in Don Norman. Writing about Ad-Hoc Personas & Empathetic Focus, Don agrees that “a major virtue of Personas is the establishment of empathy and understanding of the individuals who use the product”. However, Don suggests that we may be able to create useful personas without contextual interviews:

Do Personas have to be accurate? Do they require a large body of research? Not always.

As a consultant to companies, I often find myself having to make my points quickly — quite often in only a few hours. This short duration makes it impossible to have any serious attempt to gather data or use real observations. Instead, I have found that people can often mine their own extensive experiences to create effective Personas that bring home design points strongly and effectively.

It seems a matter of judgement: if you already know a lot about your users, then maybe you can skip the contextual interviews. If you don’t know much about your users, and you’re on a tight budget, then you’ve got to make some tough choices. After all, if you skimp on user research, you could end up frustrating your users, wasting development effort and satisfying no-one (PDF).


3 thoughts on “What makes a good persona?

  1. Good post, Antony – thank you for contributing.

    I agree that Travis’ first point could be open to argument in some situations, as you describe, but I think the big thing is to avoid basing personas on what we *think* we know, and just making them into caricatures.
    If that’s the case, then the work we do based on those personas will be shaky.

    Like you say, though, there are different ways that we can gather real information about our users, and use that to inform the personas we create.

    Just as an aside, Peter Merholz (Adaptive Path) said in a workshop on Thursday that personas are the single most useful tool they employ in their UX design projects.

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