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I started using personas in 2005 when I worked at Microsoft. Ever since I’ve been a fan, and it has become one of my favorite methods of all times. But the creation of good personas is time demanding, and clients don’t always have the time and money to do it right.

But there is an alternative to research-based personas, which I call “light personas”. In this post I will explain how I am using this method and what the benefits are.

The power of personas
You almost have to try it to get convinced – but personas really works! As no other tool they make you understand and relate to the users and let you focus on them throughout the entire design and development process.

I see 4 major benefits to using personas:

  1. A shared picture of the user
    The first thing a project needs is a realistic and shared picture of who is going to be using your design. For this you probably want to look at online survey material, web traffic data and perhaps other data sources as well. This kind of data will tell you in very general terms who your users are and how they use your product or service.But who are the people behind the statistics? How do they look? What do they want? And why?This is where personas are used. Personas describe users as real people, so that you (as a human being) can relate to them. By using personas the team can share a very concrete picture of the users and in this way discuss and agree on which users are most important to focus on.
  2. User focus throughout the process
    Once the design process has taken off the team needs to have a continuous focus on the user’s needs. In this phase it is very useful to refer to personas to make sure you take the right decisions along the way.For example, you can ask your personas questions, like: “Will Michelle want to use this feature?” or “Will Tom be able to understand that he needs to fill in his information at this point?”. Once you start doing this you will see, that it is much easier to ask these questions to a persona than to a statistic report. (If you didn’t get it, Michelle and Tom are persona names.)
  3. Personas also keeps you user-centered after the design process is over and implementation begins. They are the basis for your screening criteria when you do usability tests later in the process. By making sure to bring in real, alive matches to your personas, you make sure the product gets usability tested by the right people.
  4. Empathy
    As an additional effect, personas give you empathy with the user, because you can relate to them as they were real people. They might even remind you of someone you know, which makes it even easier. This is important if you are going to create a design that will make the users happy.

Working with ‘heavy’ personas
When I worked with Microsoft we used personas to design the ERP system called Microsoft Dynamics.

 The Microsoft Dynamics personas are based on huge amounts of data. The UX team at Microsoft has been interviewing hundreds of people, analyzing business organizations, and learning about the business domain.

As a result the personas are highly detailed and a very good representation of real users and a great way to get to know and understand them and their domain.

To me, this kind of research data is absolutely ideal in order to create a good design for a group of people with certain needs.

By sometimes there is just not time and money to do as much research before the design phase begins. And then you need to do some ‘light personas’ instead.

A lighter, cheaper version
When time and money are limited on a project, this does not mean that you don’t focus on the users. You just do less research (or none at all) and instead make the people on your team to give you insights about the users.

A light persona is basically the same as a regular persona except it is not based on user research and it tends to be less detailed.

Here are the most important elements for a persona, that I usually include in the light version as well:

Name, Age, Picture, Occupation, Special characteristics/skills, Goals and Interests.

Sometimes I add other important factors that relate to the product/service – for example media habits, technical skills, economic situation etc.

How to do them (fast)
Here is a method for creating light personas rather fast. It should only take a 2-hour workshop with the team, then some homework by the UX professional, and in the end a shorter follow-up meeting with the team.

Here is how it goes:

  1. Call for a meeting with the team
    Get the team together in a meeting of no less than 2 hours. Make sure the people who best know the users are present.
  2. Brainstorm: Who is the user?
    Hand out post-its to everyone in the room. Ask team members to visualize one potential user and put the information about him or her or a single post-it. They should write the user’s name, age, occupation and what they are using the product for (or another fact that quickly describes their interaction or interest in the product). Each team member should create at least 3 post-its.
  3. Group and select
    The team members now place their post-its on a whiteboard and read it’s content out aloud to the group, so all the ideas are heard.
    Together you then group the ones that are of similar kind so you get a good overview of the different types of users. Use this overview to engage in a group discussion: Is this is a realistic picture of the most important users? Is someone missing? Who is the most important user to you?
    In the end you pick 2-4 of the groups that seem like the most important users.
  4. Add detail to the chosen groups
    For each of the chosen types of users you do a new brainstorm and figure out the details of the persona – like their goals, habits, fears, interests and so on. The type of data you need is really dependent on which domain you are designing for and will vary from project to project. For example, if the domain is News you need to look at media and technology habits and particular their interest in news. If the domain is Driving a car you need to include an entirely different set of details.
  5. Finalization
    The input from the entire meeting is collected and the UX professional can now create the personas in a form that fit into a PowerPoint slide or similar. This means finding a photo to match the persona, sort out the details and add what is missing.
    Then the team meets again and discuss the personas and finalize them. Finally the personas are prioritized so everybody have a shared view of who is most important.

The second best option
First of all, compared to not using personas at all, light personas make a huge difference to the UX designer and the team as such.

Even though the quality of the persons is less than optimal and they haven’t been based on real research data, they still have the power of personas that I outlined in the beginning of this post. They are a great tool to put the focus on the user before, under and after designing and building a product.

So don’t wait and don’t give excuses – use personas on your next project!