How to Create User Personas You’ll Actually Use

Published by Drew Johnson · January 05 2024
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Does your company utilize user personas as part of your product lifecycle? Ever use them to help guide updates and innovations?

A lot of companies and individuals want to use these tools but might lack the skills or resources to do so effectively. Not to worry, you can leverage our framework. Check out our insights on how to workshop personas with clients and grab our free Figma user persona templates.

What is a user persona?

In short, a user persona is a description of a hypothetical customer or consumer. Useful user personas will typically include a mixture of real data, i.e. user research, graphics, and copy that helps give your fictional user some livelihood. While there is no definitively correct way to build a persona there are a few pieces of info that are industry standard:

  • An imagined name, illustrated portrait, and a short bio
  • Problem statements and pain points, plus motivations and goals
  • References to product or service features, sometimes in the form of agile stories

How do ideal customer profiles, buyer personas, and user personas differ?

Illustration showing branching profiles, user personas versus buyer personas.

If you’ve worked with marketing or business development professionals you might have heard the terms ideal customer profile (ICP) or buyer persona. Both of these groups are made up of broad demographic data, think “Businesses that make over $250K a quarter” or “C-suite executives”. ICPs are typically businesses or accounts, they’re mainly used in a B2B context. Buyer personas can be B2B or B2C, they’re individuals that represent a business or other prospective customers.

You’ll occasionally see information on a user persona that is taken from an ICP or buyer persona. This is usually in the form of demographic data and can be slipped in anywhere, bios are commonplace though, “Rashida is an east coaster, she makes $150K+ a year, and works in fintech.” There are a couple of problems with including this data in a user persona:

  • It’s not descriptive enough: Many different types of users can fit into any given demographic or segment.
  • It’s not very helpful: Demographics can give you generalized information about affinity, intention, and goals, but they can’t capture nuances like emotions or abilities.

Normal doesn’t exist

There’s a really great insight in the book Good Services by Lou Downe, where they’re talking about inclusion and the idea of “normal” users:

“…We need to go beyond thinking about accessibility, with all of the inherent biases that come along with creating a baseline of ‘normal’ versus those with ‘access needs’, and start to think in terms of ‘inclusion’ of a full spectrum of needs instead…”
Lou Downe, Founder & Director of The School of Good Services

This is a great stance to take, not only when designing services and products, but also when thinking about creating inclusive user personas to compliment them. Siloing user needs and goals can lead to ignoring intersectional identity, complexity and context matters. Don’t be afraid to dig into details when they’re important.

How to workshop user personas

Illustration showing an assortment of user profiles.

When working with a new account, holding a user persona workshop is a great way to learn more about how your client views their users. You can use this time to gather insights on research they might have already completed or personas they have on hand. The discovery phase can feel overwhelming—don’t be afraid to ask open-ended questions. Learning more about your client’s assumptions and their user's expectations is key.

If you’re starting from scratch or creating updated personas you can use the user persona Figma template below. If you have research, original or third-party, then include your findings. If you don’t have any, lean into fiction for now, with the intention of updating your personas later. You can also use the following agenda and best practices to help guide your workshop.

Agenda & best-practices

  • Introductions | 5 minutes
  • Personas 101: What they are, why they matter | 5 minutes
  • Creating and updating personas | 20 minutes
    • If you have a small group (3-5 people) have each participant work on one persona
    • If you have a large group split up into teams, you should aim to have 4-8 personas total
  • Reviewing and iterating | 10 minutes
    • Each participant or team should present their persona and collect feedback from the group, using new insights to help further flesh out their work
  • Brainstorm: Big questions & research topics | 15 minutes
    • Think about what you don’t know, are there any big unanswered questions the group has? Any assumptions you’d like to challenge or explore further?
    • You can use these questions to create new research studies and use the info from those studies to further build your personas and inform your UX work.

By the end of your session, your team should be excited about their new personas. We’re not just going through the motions here, you should make the benefits clear to the client from the beginning of the exercise.

Figjam & Figma templates

Download our Figjam template below. Use it in our next workshop.

Ready to workshop? Grab a copy of our user persona Figma template.

We've made it easy for you to get started too. Leverage sliders based on the Big 5 personality to help build out your persona, then use the magnet banks to help identify goals, skills, and pain points. Our Senior Product Design, Bekah Hanson, put together a list of starter magnets—add your own and customize your characters to fit any situation. User personas should be specific to your product so you'll want to lean into being more descriptive than not. 

When should user personas be updated?

Users change and your personas should too. Before you make updates ask yourself: Has our product or service changed recently? If yes, what user research was done before those changes were rolled out? Did the updates lead to any new user insights? You might have started with a largely fictional persona, but as your digital product grows and you have more and more real data, you’ll want to incorporate that into your personas.

Even if you don’t have new data there have probably been changes in technology or culture that might have an impact on your product. To address this, you’ll generally want to update your user personas at least once a year. Setting a quarterly or monthly update cadence is a good way to revisit these regularly too, even if you don’t make updates every time you review them.

How to get stakeholders onboard

Usefulness is key, focus on creating personas that are right for the project you’re working on. Consider the fidelity, types of information, and presentation style—all of these will have an impact on how stakeholders engage with and ultimately value the work.

For example, if you’re working with a team that’s used to high-level overviews you might not want to present them with all of the information at once. In this case, you should consider presenting only the most important information, optimized to be skimmable and easy to understand. Over-engineering should be avoided, we don’t need to use a sledgehammer on a pushpin.

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