When you're deep in the weeds of designing a new product, it's easy to lose sight of what really matters—our users.

With so many problems to anticipate, features to consider, and plans to execute, we sometimes forget to put our users' needs first. It's never been more important to build products that solve our users' problems, but before we can do this, we need to know exactly who we're building our products for.

Creating user personas is one of the best ways we can learn more about the kinds of people who will get real value from the products we create. They're also an excellent way of quickly identifying genuine user needs as well as ways we can meet those needs—but only if our user personas are accurate.

What Are User Personas?

User personas are composite profiles of fictional people who closely resemble the real people who are most likely to use your product. Oftentimes, user personas are created using detailed qualitative research and incorporate the needs, desires, and problems of your target market.

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Some companies and teams shy away from personas, but they're among the best tools at our disposal for establishing and building empathy with our actual users. We can rarely speak with or see our users, but we can use our personas to ensure we're building products and features that real people genuinely want.

There are multiple touch points throughout the product development process that can benefit from drawing upon user personas. We can use personas to identify individual product features that should be developed, evaluate existing design ideas, and even create documentation that our users will actually find useful.

Put another way, user personas allow us to personalize the entirety of our product experience.

How Do I Create Accurate User Personas?

Before you begin sifting through your research data to begin identifying commonalities for our personas, it's vital to understand that user personas are only generalized archetypes. No matter how accurate or exhaustive our user research may be, we can only ever approximate the problems, needs, and desires of the real people who will actually use our products.

Dive Deep into User Research

The first step in creating accurate user personas is to analyze your user research. Why? Because the closer you get to your actual users, the more accurate your user personas will be.

For example, take a look at the user persona below. This user persona, for a Virtual Appliance Administrator, was developed by IBM for version 5.2 of its Security Identity Governance and Intelligence product:

From a feature development perspective, this user persona is very detailed. It breaks down this individual's primary tasks—Install and configure the database server, Prepare the virtual machine, Configure the application interfaces, mail server, and data store—as well as the subtasks associated with these primary job roles. This tells us a great deal about how each of these features should be configured, as well as step-by-step user documentation on how to do so.

However, while this persona might be useful in the development of new product features or onboarding UX, it doesn't tell us a great deal about who this person really is, or the problems they're likely to encounter frequently. We know that one of the Virtual Appliance Administrator's primary jobs is to install and configure database servers, but how long does it take to configure a database server? Does the Virtual Appliance Administrator need executive sign-off to purchase new software or hardware solutions? Does this person manage a team, or are they alone responsible for these tasks?

Unfortunately, there's no “golden rule” when it comes to user research and personas. Generally speaking, though, the more questions you ask, the more complete your personas will be. Try to balance technical detail (like that of the example persona above) with broader, more qualitative responses, such as the aspects of that user's job that they find the most frustrating or time-consuming. Your user personas should be comprehensive enough to help you do your job, but balanced enough to provide value for other teams.

Compile—and Compare—Information

One approach that some companies take when creating user personas is to task each major team involved in a product's development—marketing, engineering, design, sales—with compiling their own research data before compiling these individual profiles into a more three-dimensional composite.

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This approach can be highly effective. Not only does it result in much more fleshed-out personas, it also allows different departments (each of which has its own unique needs and challenges) to identify commonalities between their users. This collaborative, interdepartmental approach can also reveal which of your users' problems are larger in scope than their individual job roles, such as seeking executive authorization for purchase orders or bottlenecks in internal development that are beyond their control.

Create the Persona

Once you've gathered enough raw user research data, it's time to actually create your user personas. Your completed personas should be broad enough so as not to exclude or overlook users, but specific enough to be genuinely useful to each department involved in developing your product.Although every company approaches user personas differently, most tend to share common data points, including:

  • Background: Age, gender, level of education, experience, seniority, etc.
  • Objectives: What is this user trying to do, and why?
  • Desires: What does this user need, and what do they really want?
  • Behaviors: How does this user prefer to work?
  • Problems: What's the most urgent problem this user is trying to solve?

These data points can often be expanded upon and personalized further. Some companies include data on everything from users' temperaments to their preferred means of problem-solving. Remember, the more detail you can include—and, more importantly, quantify—the more complete and accurate your personas will be.

Spread the Word

With your completed user personas in hand, all that's left is to share the results with the rest of your team and relevant stakeholders.

However you choose to do it, it's vital that everyone on your team knows your user personas as well as they know their coworkers. There's no point conducting user research or compiling personas if nobody takes them into consideration throughout the product development process. User personas are your guiding light as a UX practitioner, and it's crucial to remember your users at every stage of the design process.

A final step in the user persona creation process that many companies have adopted is naming their user personas. It's much easier to design for and empathize with users with names and distinct personalities than it is to develop a genuine connection to a Virtual Appliance Administrator, as in the IBM example above.

Personas Should Grow and Develop Over Time—Just Like Your Users

Our final tip for creating better, more accurate user personas is to periodically revisit these composites to ensure that they genuinely reflect your real, flesh-and-blood users. Even professionals who've been in the same job in the same field for many years grow and change over time—and your personas should, too.

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Going back and adjusting existing user personas doesn't mean your initial research methodology was flawed, or that you overlooked vital information. Remember, user needs can and often do change over time, so be sure to reevaluate the accuracy of your personas using actual user research data periodically.

Finally, it's important to remember that, ultimately, user personas are just composites of individual attributes shared by many people across many different job roles. Accurate, well-developed user personas can be invaluable tools to UX practitioners, but relying on them too closely can be just as disastrous as failing to consider them at all.

If in doubt, go straight to the source for the information you need—the real human beings who are actually using your product. They'll thank you for it later.