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Apr 22, 2015 | Updated May 1, 2021

Keeping Personas Alive & Making Them Real

Personas have been around since the mid ‘90s, and the popularity of personas can ebb and flow. What is the challenge with personas?

What are personas?

Personas are fictional characters based on real data created to represent the core users of a site or product. They are created from sources like interviews, surveys, focus groups, and usability studies. Good personas are invaluable in getting the user-focused perspective, not just as the product is first being designed, but throughout the product lifecycle phases. While there are plenty of posts written about how to create personas this blog focuses on how to keep the personas alive long after their creation is complete.

Personas have been around since the mid ‘90s, and the popularity of personas can ebb and flow. What is the challenge with personas? Time investment can be one hurdle—it can take time to create good personas based on user data. However, once the investment is made, the biggest challenge can be keeping the personas alive and in the forefront of project teams. The life of a persona can be short lived—they may influence requirements and early product ideas, only to be shelved after the initial creation and excitement has lost its momentum.

Given that personas are so useful throughout the product lifecycle, what can you do to keep them alive? How do you keep your product team engaged and excited about your personas even in the development and user acceptance testing phase of the project? Here are some suggested approaches:

  • Create experience maps that visually tell the story of the user experience based on the personas. Experience maps can provide a very powerful medium to demonstrate the user’s journey over time in a visual one-page story. They are helpful in representing usage patterns, user goals, wants and needs, and opportunities. I recently wrote a blog that covered the fine art of creating experience maps. Keeping that visual story nearby at all times will help remind the team of the key attributes and user engagement over time.
  • Create scenarios based on your personas and make them part of the requirements documentation. Scenarios are brief end-to-end stories that illustrate how users want to interact with the system to accomplish their goals. Scenarios provide helpful context and motives from the user’s perspective and provide insight into how requirements should come together in a user-friendly design.
  • Create monthly to quarterly workshops with your users. Recruit participants that align to your personas and invite them to come talk to the product team. It’s important to provide an incentive to be sure they are rewarded for their time. Plan an interactive schedule that includes sharing concepts, validating user scenarios, and hands-on feedback on the product in production. Doing this will make the personas real to everyone on the team, and create a personal connection with your users. It will also uncover valuable data about the incremental success of your product in development and inform areas to invest time and focus on any changes before going live.

Keeping the personas alive will ensure the entire development cycle is based on a user-centered approach. Real-time feedback from users will spark passion in the team for persona-driven developments. Other than recruitment time, this effort doesn’t have to be a huge time investment. You could plan a two-hour session focused on the highest priority areas that benefit most from user feedback. The return from this effort far outweighs the time investment: benefits include a stronger personal connection with your personas and validation of scenarios and assumptions about the user experience.

Think about what you would ask your users right now if you brought them into a room for a discussion. What are your assumptions about your product today? What questions might your team have that could be easily validated by a conversation with your users? How long has it been since the personas you’ve created have been referenced in a meeting? If the answer is even two weeks ago, now’s the time to reignite that connection.

Kathryn works in user research at Blink with 10 years of previous experience with Microsoft. She is very passionate about solving highly technical user-centered design problems. In her spare time Kathryn enjoys painting in her studio, and as a native Texan she still loves good BBQ and blues music.