11 Steps Toward Actionable Personas

I’ve got a dirty little secret – I don’t really like personas. This may be reasonable suspicion for dismissal from the User Experience club, but before you judge me too harshly, allow me to explain my position.

Point 1 — Personas eat up valuable time & attention

If you follow any classic program of HCI or UX training, personas were likely a significant part of your training. To fulfill the user-centered design process, the training says, you must first understand your user-who they are, what goals they have, and how you can motivate them. What better way to achieve that than to add a set of Personas to your project plan? By writing about our target audience, we will magically become empathic designers. We can embrace the audience segments, internalize their needs, design around their roadblocks, and generally do a better job of engaging them.

But here’s the reality-the Discovery phase for an agency engagement is one of the most time-intensive and attention-scattered portions of any large-scale, real-world project. There are piles of existing research, numerous stakeholder groups to interview, reams of analytics, survey data, marketing collateral and the like to pore through. As the metaphor goes, it’s like trying to sip water out of a fire hose. These documents and activities are invaluable but they’re dense – and finding the insights scattered among them takes serious time and energy. It’s also one of the first places that clients and project managers want to scale back when deadlines are tight.

What happens in these cases is often the creation of the persona-lite-a rapidly built document that lets the UX team feel like they haven’t sold their soul, and project management team feel that they’ve “checked the box.” These thin versions are not informed by direct customer research, and are therefore built on the usually false assumptions of the UX designer tasked with its creation.

Which leads to my next point.

Point 2 – The majority of personas are misinformed at best and misleading at worst.

One common cause of poor personas is their alignment to demographic data, which tends to instigate all of our worst stereotyping behavior. I call this the “Nuclear Family Fallacy” where we tend toward following established stereotypes. If the data says the largest demographic group is married and that group most frequently has two kids and most often our buyer is a woman, and that woman usually does not have full employment, then our personas are likely to reflect all of this. But it doesn’t reflect the reality. When we base our assumptions on stereotypes or data averages, we lose track of the uniqueness of real, human individuals.

Let me give you an example of how this plays out.

In a recent persona review, one astute client commented that our photos bore zero resemblance to the client marketing event he had attended the prior week. And it was true. The stock photos we used were filled with attractive, clean-cut, well-groomed individuals in awkwardly “professional” poses. While my personas were based on real customer interviews, those interviews were done over the phone, and I was making gross assumptions about how these professionals looked on the other end of the line. Plus, by turning to available stock photography that fit the visual style of the deliverable I was creating, I was unwittingly skewing the accuracy of my personas. Mea culpa.

It’s a simple example to prove a point, but it applies to every aspect of our personas. When we don’t know, we tend to make assumptions and those assumptions are just as frequently wrong.

Point 3 – Personas are frequently un-actionable.

Once you’ve created your personas, what do you do with them? It’s common practice for personas to be created, presented, and then tossed into the PowerPoint graveyard. Stakeholders can nod in affirmation-yes, you’ve captured the essence of our users-but it’s another thing entirely to build actionable personas adding value to the design process. They can be mildly interesting but still lack the depth and nuance that differentiate user groups.

It’s this differentiation that we are really seeking. For personas to become actionable tools in experience design, we need them to tell us how user group A is different from user group B, so that we can understand exactly what information, what tools, and what features we need to be creating, plus the behaviors our design needs to encourage or discourage.

At this point, you’re probably in one of two camps — either grumbling in reluctant agreement, or getting ready to skewer me for missing the point. But I’d like to make a counter-argument, and show how a recent project has changed my mind about the value of these elusive deliverables.


Extractable was recently engaged by a large B2B client whose corporate clients stretch across Marketing, Legal, Accounting and other teams. The company had grown through acquisition and now managed a set of loosely connected websites. Compounding this was an intricate set of back-office business processes, long sales cycles, and well-entrenched incumbent vendors.

Our team quickly realized that a major stumbling block to design would be our own ability to comprehend the enormous complexity of the vendor-customer relationship, and that personas could serve as a bridge across the knowledge gap. To unravel this complexity, we followed several strategies in creating our personas.

Preliminary Work

1. Build a framework. To drive home audience differentiation we created an “audience grid” that separated leadership decision-makers from end users, and separated buyers from the advisors they consulted. Each persona sat squarely in one portion of the grid.

2. Base personas on real primary research. Since our domain knowledge was small, speaking with real customers was essential to understanding the industry. Even if you can only get 4-5 customers to speak with, make every effort to do so. You can also supplement with transcripts from past interviews.

3. Determine the appropriate persona “type.” Are they behavioral? Psychographic? Demographic? For our client, we quickly perceived that the user’s role in the corporate structure is most indicative of their goals, motivations, and behaviors. By aligning to this structure, we create a common language among the team.

4. Don’t work in a bubble. A good approach is to tag-team the interviews and allow follow up time to discuss what you heard. Each interview should be discussed, dissected, and debated. It’s amazing how much more detail you’ll catch. Share the personas and gather as much input as you can, especially from subject matter experts.

Creating the Personas

5. Build in uniqueness and consider the corner cases. Personas should capture the essence of your audience by being as unique as they are. It will bring a degree of reality that makes the personas relatable and sparks rich discussion. Think of them as colorful composites of your interviews. Your SMEs can help validate which customer inputs represent a larger trend, and which are anomalies of that individual.

6. Look for key relationships. Nearly every purchase decision-from the simplest consumer product to the most complex B2B sale-involves more than one customer. Selling a smartphone-what apps does your target group want to share with their friends? By calling out these relationships in the persona you can surface important motivations in a realistic fashion.

7. Define the user’s goals & motivations. By examining the underlying situation for each user group, your personas will move into more actionable territory. You can focus on features later. For now, think about what’s driving the user.

8. Use real user quotes in your personas. It’s nearly impossible for stakeholders to challenge actual quotes from customers. And almost as impossible to write realistic sounding quotes. So resist the urge to fabricate user quotes, but do include real ones.

9. Call out opportunities. While you have the mindshare, it’s a good time to start brainstorming on potential opportunities. For B2B clients, we created a unique set of marketing opportunities to reach each persona. Even if you don’t fulfill the majority of them, you’ll have a record of good ideas.

10. Use photography, and spend time getting it right. It’s human nature to remember faces better than words. These photos will be instantly recognizable and persist longer than the fine detail of your text, especially to team members outside the immediate design group.

11. Be honest about your product. If your project goal is to gain more customers, you need to appeal to those prospects that aren’t an easy sell. Be upfront about the areas where your product is less compelling, and you’ll have a more actionable persona.

The Takeaway

Obviously, the point of all this is not to say that personas should be stricken from the record. Precisely the opposite. They’re an irreplaceable tool in the user-centered design process – when done well.

If you want to learn more about how Extractable can help you in the Discovery process, drop us a line. We’d be happy to chat.