What are Personas and Why are They Necessary?

Being in the world of marketing, you’ve probably heard the phrase persona thrown around in a strategy meeting. You likely have an understanding of what a persona is and how we in the industry use them to help craft messaging that resonates with the target audience. But perhaps you’ve taken them for face value and never really dug deeper to figure out the real (romanticized) reason behind personas.

Until today, that is. In this Flying Cork blog, we’re going to break down the reason you should incorporate personas into your process.  But first, where do you begin?

The starting point is in the discovery phase.

The process for website projects at Flying Cork consists of various phases. For larger and more complex projects, we start off with our discovery phase, otherwise also known as “Ideation.”

As with any design project, it is extremely important to know exactly what you’re creating, for whom, and why.

For the creative types among us (myself included), it’s difficult to fight the urge to dive right into the more tangible elements of a project like the features, technology, and visuals. However, this road is pitted with huge risks and hurdles, the biggest one being that the end product won’t address the wants and needs of the end user. While it may have all of the bells and whistles, it might not resonate with the people who matter most – your target audience.

This creative nightmare can be avoided by implementing a discovery phase into your project.

This leads me to the crux of this blog post: personas.

When all of the tools and exercises are complete, personas are at the very center of our discovery process. So what exactly are personas and how do we use them?

Personas are fictional characters – not real people. They incorporate traits and properties extracted from real-user research data, insofar as they are relevant to the users’ interactions with the website.

Although personas are fictional, good personas are very precise in their description/definition.

What are personas based on?

Market research, user behavior patterns, and any other target audience data you have available form the basis for personas. What you’re after is the information – most often around needs and wants – that outlines how different users approach and use the website. This data helps inform decisions about which personas should be created and how many.

They’re not user profiles

Although there are definitely dotted lines between personas and user profiles, they do differ in definition and usage. Whereas user profiles describe groups of actual people and their characteristics, personas are fictional entities that are artificially created to serve as a tool during the design process.

Elements of personas

Personas usually consist of attitudes, behavior patterns, goals (needs/wants), skills, and anything else relevant to the project, such as the context in which they will interact with the website. To add more realism, we also establish the following:

  • Name and portrait photo
  • Characterizing slogan (Ex: “Nit-picky Patty puts quality first”)
  • Marital status
  • Family background
  • Profession
  • Company information
  • Character traits
  • Emotional stances relevant to the interaction with the website

Different kinds of personas

Personas representing the website’s main target audiences should be treated with more detail and priority than personas representing audiences of lesser importance. A common categorization is the following, in order of importance:

  1. Focal – Primary users who are the main website’s target.
  2. Secondary – Also use the website. We satisfy their needs when we can.
  3. Unimportant – Low-priority users.
  4. Affected – Don’t use the website but are affected by it.
  5. Exclusionary – We’re not designing for them. Period.
  6. Stakeholders – usually clients who will benefit from the end product.

So, how many do you need? The number of personas is dictated by various factors like the scope and complexity of the website, the variety of needs of the target audience (more variety requires additional personas to represent the audiences), budgets, and time constraints. For example, medium-sized websites with limited functionality serving only two distinctly different audiences will need an average of four to eight.

I think I’ve covered enough for one week; check back for parts two and three where I’ll discuss how to use them, why to use them, and when.