Assumption personas are fake personas

It's easy to create a set of plausible statements about the primary users of a product or web site. We can make assumptions about their goals, their background and their behaviours, find a suitable bit of clip art and voila, we have a persona. It's much harder to create an accurate description of users that the design team will believe in and actually use to resolve design disputes.

How do we know if we have a real persona or something fake? Ask these 7 questions of your persona:

  1. Is the persona based on contextual interviews with real customers?
  2. Does the persona evoke empathy by including a name, a photograph and a product-relevant narrative?
  3. Does the persona appear realistic to people who deal with customers day-to-day?
  4. Is each persona unique, having little in common with other personas?
  5. Does the persona include product-relevant high-level goals and include a quotation stating the key goal?
  6. Is the number of personas small enough for the design team to remember the name of each one, with one of the personas identified as primary?
  7. Can the development team use the persona as a practical tool to make design decisions?

If you have a great persona, you'll be able to answer each question with a resounding "Yes".

P-E-R-S-O-N-A

As a memory aid, we can take each letter in the word PERSONA and relate it to one of these criteria:

  • P is for Primary research
  • E is for Empathy
  • R is for Realistic
  • S is for Singular
  • O is for Objectives
  • N is for Number
  • A is for Applicable

Let's look at each of these in turn.

7 ways to identify fake personas

Primary research: Is the persona based on contextual interviews with real customers?
It's easy to create a fake persona by inventing an imaginary character containing all of your assumptions about users. But if your assumptions are wrong then your persona is worthless and will mislead the development team. As Mark Twain once wrote, "Supposing is good, but finding out is better." Every key element of your persona should be traceable to primary research with end users. For personas, “primary research” means observations of customer behaviour combined with interviews in the places where people actually use your product or web site. This means you should shun research methods like focus groups and instead use techniques like field visits.
Empathy: Does the persona evoke empathy by including a name, a photograph and a product-relevant narrative?
It's a lot harder to ship a bad product if you know the individual who is going to have to use it. One of the key benefits of having a persona is that it helps the design team empathise with the user and appreciate the difficulties that the user faces. That's why personas have a name and a photograph: to make them real, so the design team believes in the personas. People should refer to the persona by name and think of him or her as a real person. To achieve this, a good persona also has a compelling narrative: not simply a bulleted list of goals but an engaging story describing the persona, to help designers relate to the persona.
Realistic: Does the persona appear realistic to people who deal with customers day-to-day?
Once your persona has been created you need to sanity check your creation with people in the organisation who work with customers every day. Send your persona to front-line staff, people in customer support and to the sales team. Check that this is someone they recognise and that they believe in the persona's goals and behaviours.
Singular: Is each persona unique, having little in common with other personas?
Each of the personas in your set should comprise a unique cluster of behaviours, motivations and goals. If you have personas that are too similar to each other it becomes difficult to remember who you are designing for. As Alan Cooper, the father of personas, writes: “It is the specificity and detail of personas that gives them their value.”
Objectives: Does the persona include product-relevant high-level goals and include a quotation stating the key goal?
Understanding the persona's goals is the heart of great user experience design. So your persona needs to make these goals explicit, with the most important goal captured in a brief quotation. Part of the art in creating personas is pitching your goals at the right level. For example, “Keep in touch with friends and family” is probably too high-level a goal to be useful for a design team developing a web site that sells mobile phones. A tactical goal like, “Find a handset small enough for my jacket pocket” captures the user's goal and also provides an appropriate design target.
Number: Is the number of personas small enough for the design team to remember the name of each one, with one of the personas identified as primary?
If you start heading into double figures, you've probably got too many personas. This is because the design team won't be able to remember all of their names or keep them in mind when designing. A Forrester survey of consultancies showed that firms created around four personas per project (and these were based on an average of 21 user interviews per project). You also need to make sure that one of your personas is primary: this will be the persona whose needs won't be met if you design the interface for someone else (whereas the other personas will accept the primary persona’s interface).
Applicable: Can the development team use the persona as a practical tool to make design decisions?
Personas are lots of fun to create but don't lose sight of the fact that they are a design tool. This means that the content of your personas — the persona's goals, behaviours and mental model — should help the design team make better design decisions. Invariably, this means you want your persona to focus on behaviours, motivations and goals rather than demographics. Whether your persona does or doesn't own a dog is irrelevant to the use of your product (unless you're designing a web site for the Kennel Club).

Avoiding fakes

Fake personas are easy to create but risk derailing your design effort. So remember the mantra: Primary research; Empathy; Realistic; Singular; Objectives; Number; Applicable.

If you want to find out more about personas, try our training course on Web Usability where you'll learn the basics and also get some practice creating a real persona that your desgn team will believe in.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) holds a BSc and a PhD in Psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, you'll love his online user experience training course.


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