3. Understanding Your User Personas

What are user personas?

Personas are realistic representations of a user group.

Personas may include demographics data but they are not typically defined by it. Instead they are defined by psychographic information that influences certain browsing or user decision.

It has to be a significant user group (think 15-20% instead of 1-5%) and it consist of

  1. The Profile of a user group (background, motivations, values, pain points…)
  2. The Goal the user is trying to achieve
  3. The Real Life Scenario the user is in, at the point of decision making

They are useful to help various stakeholders (senior management, project managers, information architects, designers, developers and copywriters) anchor real-world consideration into a design planning conversation and help prioritize features development.

In competitive environments, less is often more. Fewer personas allow better focus in shaping priorities which often give better user outcomes.

From our experience, an effective website would have between 2 to 6 personas. Most projects will have 4-5 personas.

In most cases, a user persona is built from qualitative user research through focus group studies or 1:1 interviews with users.

What is the difference between Personas and Archetype?

  1. Archetype is a typical example of a type of person or thing. That is, he/she/it fit a known set of characteristics
    For instance, you can say “The girl we spoken to yesterday is an archetype of a Gen Y user”.
    A marketing example would be Diesel and Harley-Davidson follow the “outlaw” archetype, which has the goal of revolt.
    For a list of common archetypes, visit Archetype.com
  2. Personas are profiles of users with unknown characteristics. They are constructed based on user research.
    Majority of this research involves qualitative methods like focus group research and 1:1 interviews. On the quantitative side, web analytics is sometimes used to get a sensing what user profile is more dominant.

How to identify your user profiles?

Before you can conduct a focus group(s) or 1:1 interviews, you will need to have some rough idea who your users/ customers are.

If you are totally clueless, try the following

  1. Ask Google – More often than not, someone has already done the work for you. Try “What is the Customer Profile of {Your Company Industry/Product} “
  2. Ask the Boss – If the product is niche, the boss or owner is sometimes the best starting point. Who are their stakeholders? What are their demographic (age, gender, location, ethnic background, marital status, income…) or psychographic (interests, hobbies, values, attitudes behaviours, lifestyle…) characteristics?
    Consider these common profiles: end users, resellers, advocates, partners, policy influencers, internal users
  3. Ask Others – Short of doing a consumer survey, try asking on a competitor’s Facebook page, group or forum that has a sizeable audience base.

At this point, majority of your will have some understanding or basic insights of your users/customers. To build our personas, we will have to do some focus group studies or 1:1 interviews.

From a cost effectiveness perspective, our recommendation is to choose focus groups over 1:1 interviews wherever possible.

However if your target segment are highly busy people like medical doctors or Banking CEOs, it might be challenging to bring them down for a focus group. In such instances 1:1 interviews by phone may be more practical.

Focus groups vs. individual interviews

  1. Focus groups and individual interviews are NOT usability studies.
    Focus groups are “small number of people (usually between 4 and 15, but typically 8) brought together with a moderator to focus on a specific product or topic. Focus groups aim at a discussion instead of on individual responses to formal questions, and produce qualitative data (preferences and beliefs) that may or may not be representative of the general population.” (Source: BusinessDictionary.com)
  2. Individual interviews as the name suggest are typically in-depth interviews with a single person.
    For further reading, see when to use focus groups or in-depth interview.

Things to note in conducting a Focus Group Study

Focus Group Sample Size: Most projects will have a total of 20-30 people split up into 4-6 groups. Each group would typically have between 5 to 10 people. You basically run focus groups till the point it leaves you with “nothing left to learn”.

Rules of Thumb Based on Data Collection Method:

Data Collection Method Rule of Thumb
Interviewing key informants Interview approximately five people.
In-depth interviews Interview approximately 30 people.
Focus groups Create groups that average 5-10 people each. In addition, consider the number of focus groups you need based on “groupings” represented in the research question. That is, when studying males and females of three different age groupings, plan for six focus groups, giving you one for each gender and three age groups for each gender.

Image Credit


  1. Line up at least 5-8 representative participants for a 90 minute session, over a couple of days.
    • What are representative participants? For example, if you are testing your new office intranet design, grab another colleague from a different department.
      If you are building a web application for customers 30 to 45, male and female, then get 2x males age roughly 30, 38 and 45 and 3x females with a similar age spread and relevant interest.
    • For paid participants, $50/ session would be reasonable for a general user profile. Highly targeted users e.g. doctors may require $200-300/session.
    • Factor in “no-show” by participants of typically 10%-15%. Preference is to call a day before hand to confirm.
    • Allow 30 minutes in between sessions
  2. Organize and Prepare your Focus Group using this document – How to conduct a Focus Group Guide
    • Do prepare 3 to 5 different ways of asking the same question. This is a useful technique to probe deeper if you further clarifications.

Questions to Ask During Focus Groups for Persona Development

The following questions and areas of discussion from Usability.gov will help you construct a snapshot of you user persona(s).

Objectives Questions
Define the Purpose/Vision for the Site
  • What is the purpose of the site?
  • What are the goals of the site?
Describe the User Personal

  • What is the age of your person?
  • What is the gender of your person?
  • What is the highest level of education this person has received?


  • How much work experience does your person have?
  • What is your person’s professional background?
  • Why will they come to the site? (User needs, interests, and goals)
  • Where (or from whom) else is this person getting information about your issue or similar programs or services?
  • When and where will users access the site? (User environment and context)


  • What technological devices does your person use on a regular basis?
  • What software and/or applications does your person use on a regular basis
  • Through what technological device does your user primarily access the web for information?
  • How much time does your person spend browsing the web every day?
User Motivation
  • What is your person motivated by?
  • What are they looking for?
  • What is your person looking to do?
  • What are his needs?

Best Practices & Pro-Tips

  1. Explain Recording Devices – Many people become self-conscious when there are recording devices present. Reassure them that all identity and responses are kept confidential.  The act of signing a consent form prior to the session can help foster mutual trust.
  2. Do Not Accept Non-Answers – “Do what journalists do. File the question away, and ask it again later. Probe from more than one angle to unlock the information you are after.” says Steven Telio.
  3. Having 2 Observers – “Conducting interviews and focus groups is more of an art than a science. The art is in trying to get a sensing on what a participant is really saying or if he/she is lying to fit within the group. We like to think we perfect the art of doing this by having 2 observers in and having them come to common terms afterwards. This helps reduce observer bias” says Joel Fu.
  4. Interject Judiciously. Being a neutral listener doesn’t mean you can’t speak. “Stopping a conversation to ask the right questions are far superior to nodding along in ignorance,” Ratliff says, “A good journalist will steer a conversation by cutting in with questions whenever they need to. This helps rein in ramblers and clarify statements before the conversation gets too far ahead to go back.
  5. Don’t jump to conclusions. “Resist the temptation to infer things that your customers didn’t tell your explicitly,” says Andrew Kaplan.

Thanks for the Discussion! Now What???

Start by summarizing all the key findings as soon as possible. Field Guide provides some concise guidelines on what to look out for in Focus Groups in a post on Medium:

  • “Barriers — if your participant runs into pain points in a digital or real world experience, you should make note of that as a problem that could potentially be addressed by your team.
  • Patterns in feedback — if the same points of feedback keep coming up, from an individual or across many participants that should be noted.
  • Language used — how did the participant talk about their experience, and how did they phrase it? This is useful information to collect because it can help inform how you communicate your product feedback to your team.
  • Important feedback — while this is entirely subjective, trust your instincts. Whatever feedback stuck out for you in the moment likely did so for a reason. You can analyze it further once you are done all of your sessions to see if it still holds weight.
  • Issues and bugs — depending on how big they are, they might be fixable before your next session. If not, it should at least inform what needs to be fixed moving forward.”

“The bottom line of your summary: did the customers validate or invalidate your hypothesis? What are the key learnings? Are there any adjustments you would make in the next sessions based on what you learned?” says Steven Telio.

Field Guide also highlighted 5 useful things to look out for in an interview.

For Interviews:

  • Need — the motivation that is driving the participants actions and feelings
  • Painpoint — barriers or roadblocks that prevent the participant from fulfilling their need
  • Activity — actions the user takes throughout their experience
  • Touchpoint — people, places and things the participant interacts with through their experience
  • Quote — something the participant has said that helps clearly exemplify the learnings or next steps you have identified

How to present user Persona?

Most projects will have 4 to 5 personas. From the focus group research findings, you would start to identify major segments with different needs and motivations.

Once again, personas may include demographics data but they are not typically defined by it. Instead they are defined by psychographic information that influences certain browsing or user decision.

There is no fixed template for building a persona. It really depends on who the persona is for, the amount of user research you were able to conduct and the objectives of the project.

Below are 3 different ways to present user Personas.

  1. Narrative – Best for stakeholders who are more concern about the usage scenarios as compared to the technical details of the users like in web usability review projects.
  1. The Table – Good for usability projects that covers a lot more dimensions e.g. Physical products. This allows for more information of a user to be presented. E.g. psychographic, demographic, geographic and behavioural information

Silvana Churruca from UX-Lady provides the rationale and elements in her 10 elements of a persona

  1. Comparison – Table comparison charts are particularly useful in presentation to contrast out different key attributes across personas.

Rob Millard from distilled shared this approach in user personas for SEO.


Disability Considerations:

According to the World Bank, 1 billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, experience some form of disability, and disability prevalence is higher for developing countries.


User personas that include accessibility consideration will also include a description of the limiting conditions. This can be disability or situational limitation as well as the adaptive strategies put in place to using the products, this includes

  • The Nature of limitation (blindness, can’t use the mouse, or working in noisy environments)
  • Assistive technology or special tools used (it can be, magnifying glasses to read smaller text, a screen reader software or stops machinery before hearing mobile phone.
  • Experience and skill alongside relevant tools or assistive technologies.
  • Frequency of use of each relevant tools or assistive technologies.
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