A 10-step summary of how to create personas

by Robert Barlow-Busch

A few days ago, I hosted a web seminar about personas for the folks at Thomson Scientific. Interest has grown there after a successful introduction to personas, which I’m told were a useful resource during their redesign of the ISI Web of Knowledge. This got me thinking: I’ve already posted some information about personas here and intend to write more in the future. So to provide an anchor for these thoughts, here is a summary of my…

10 steps to personas (in three parts)

Begin by setting your objectives and gathering data:

  1. Define the problem that you want personas to help solve. For example, “These personas will help us understand people’s behaviors around exchanging electronic documents, to help us design a website for that activity.” It may be tempting, but try to avoid general statements such as “help us understand our customers better.” What specifically do you want to learn?
  2. Identify the people you need to study in order to understand the problem you defined. Best practices in persona development require you to spend time face-to-face with current or potential customers. To plan for this, you need some model of the market to help identify the people you’ll want to recruit. Customer segmentation models from marketing can be a useful input for this step.
  3. Get into the field and meet the people you identified. Interview them, ask for demonstrations, and observe the environment in which they would use your product or service. Augment this with information from other sources such as subject matter experts, articles, blogs, and market research studies. Be sure to do some research beforehand to get a basic understanding of the domain, as you’ll learn more in the field if you’re already up to speed on some basics.

Identify patterns in your research that form the foundations of your personas:

  1. Compile your observations from each customer visit. Focus on observations that in your mind are defining characteristics of each person whom you visited, given the problem domain you’re studying. Mark each observation with its source: for example, “Sends documents only as email attachments. Never prints and mails them. [Participant #9]”
  2. Arrange observations into categories. Form categories of observations about the same topic or issue. For example: project size, overall goals, volume of email sent, and so on. Methods such as affinity diagramming are excellent for this step, particularly when you’re working with others who may have assisted with the research. I recommend printing your observations onto removable labels so it’s easy to cover a wall or whiteboard with them.
  3. Identify findings within categories. Look inside each category to find patterns in the observations you collected. For example, it may be clear in a category such as “project size” that you have a group of people who manage projects under $5000, and another who manages projects of $100K or more.
  4. Cluster the findings into coherent groups. For each of the specific findings you identified, ask yourself two questions: “Which other findings seem to always occur with this one? And which seem to never occur with it?” For example, what are the other characteristics of someone who manages projects under $5000? This is why it’s helpful on each observation to indicate its source, e.g., participant #9. These questions help you form groups of findings that belong together based on what you learned from research. Those groups become the foundations of your personas.

Bring your personas to life and put them to work:

  1. Develop complete personas from the groups you identified. Fill them out with details from your research to create a more complete picture of that person. For an example of the end result, see my earlier blog post about an example persona used in the design of a web application.
  2. Introduce the personas to your organization or project team. Describe the scope of your research and the process you followed during analysis; this often raises people’s confidence in what you’re reporting. Provide everyone with a personal copy of each persona.
  3. Put the personas to work. Help your team understand how personas can play a role in activities such as design, development, and marketing (this is most successful by demonstrating their value through your own work). When people talk about “the user,” challenge them to clarify which specific persona they’re talking about.

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