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Creating Personas for UXO

In our last piece 7 Tips for Highly Effective Brainstorming Sessions we touched on the basics of what User Experience Optimization (UXO) is and what a UXO expert can do to enhance your design process and business development. This time around, and for the next couple posts, we’re getting into some of the nitty-gritty of implementing UXO, and what really drives the review process forward. 

As we discussed before, at the core of understanding and fixing UX is understanding users and what they need. That means one of the core elements of UX design, and by extension UX, is a user ‘persona’. 

‘Persona’ in this case doesn’t refer to a disguise or alias–it refers to a person or persons whose set of characteristics informs the design decisions you make along the way. Depending on how general or how specific your product/service is, your user persona will have to be crafted differently–but regardless of which, it’s generally a good idea to develop one.

puppy wearing a robin hood outfit
‍‍Wishbone in a Robin Hood persona, probably not the user you’re designing for

There are a few characteristics of a good user persona. 

First, it’s not generally based on one person, but on a conglomerate of people that you’re drawing from. In a user research-intensive process, this is based on user interviews and both quantitative and qualitative data collection. But if you’re using a UXO expert to guide your process, the persona development might look different. It will likely be some combination of knowledge you’ve gathered about your user base, the expert’s knowledge about users, and maybe some user research.

‍‍An example of a basic persona
Multiple User Experience Personas
Multiple user personas

Second, a persona should likely be short–a single slide or a single flipchart page full of post-it notes and sketches is a good size to keep in mind. 

You’re not trying to capture everything and anything about this persona’s life story. You’re trying to create a point by point list of characteristics that are important to keep in mind while tailoring a design to them. This means you’ll want to know some basic background facts, and then some deeper and perhaps surprising facts that influence how they might use an app, website, etc. 

You’ll also want to keep their annoyances and dislikes in mind–those are the things you want to minimize. 

Remember, good UX is really about not bothering people. You might also try to produce a few different user personas on a single slide, especially if you have a diverse audience in mind.

Winnie the Pooh with text And not a single bother was given that day
Winnie the Pooh championing solid UX principles.

The goal of the persona is to inform your design. It’s like having a little angel (or devil?) on your shoulder giving you advice. It’s not a set of hard and fast rules for what your final prototypes should look like, but it is a solid way to ensure your design isn’t nonsense spun out of thin air made from cotton candy. A persona is a nice way to ground your work. On the other hand, if your persona isn’t working for the types of user bases you eventually want to access, it can change. A good user persona (or set of them) will be open to adaptation, but not too much.

In business schools everywhere you often learn to design for as general a person as possible. Aka Average Joe who lives in Anytown, Somewhere and has a midsize sedan. 

Don’t design for Average Joe.

You can make sweeping generalizations about your design populations, but Average Joe isn’t going to give you any interesting insights to go from. As you, or you and your UXO expert, work out what your user personas can look like, try to think extreme. Or think why you wanted to build this product in the first place. The story of Oxo Good Grips is a good place to look. Oxo Good Grips was started by a man who wanted to make kitchen products that were usable by his wife, who was an arthritis sufferer. Today, they’re one of the most widely reputable kitchen gadget companies out there–a household name indeed. It didn’t happen for them because they designed average kitchen products for average people. 

They designed stuff for outliers, someone who had real difficulty using the product. And as such, they came out with something with a really interesting grip that assists people with all sorts of conditions getting day-to-day tasks done. And it’s even comfortable for Average Joe and Plane Jane to use in their own conditions. 

So when you’re sketching out your personas, think quirky, think extreme, think special, think difficult. Don’t think average.

Don’t design for these people.
oxo grip handles
Oxo Grip Products

Once you’ve got your user personas together, you can use them for a few different purposes. 

Think of your user personas like characters in a novel. You put them in different scenarios and see how they interact. That’s how personas can inform your design decisions. It helps make design decisions and revisions more grounded, by giving you a way to tell a story about the design. (Eg ‘Natalie, our persona here, would want X in Y situation to do Z, therefore this button makes sense). It’s like playing Mad Libs, but with design. Remember, again, that a persona is not your be-all, end-all, but it is a powerful imagination tool. When you’re in a UXO process with less intensive user research, personas can often be stand-ins for traditional user testing.

 Personas are useful because they help you get into someone else’s head. If you’re Steve Jobs, you can get away with designing for yourself your whole life and build something spectacular. But most people aren’t so gifted and you need something to go on to get outside your own realm of experience. User personas help you keep in mind who you are building something for. 

They can inform everything from the flow of your application to its color scheme to your eventual marketing strategy. Give it a shot. Like anything else in the design process, it’s not something that has to be perfect from the get-go. And it can be as intensive or quick-and-dirty as you want it to be. You can do years of research, or pull in some stock images and type out a full bullet points. 

Whatever it is, a UXO expert can usually help you polish it and make it tailored to your own product. But in the meantime, try thinking about some characteristics of who you’re designing for (or would like to), and what would drive their use of your product. You’d be surprised what sitting down and undertaking that creative exercise might do–even an imaginary person might shock you!

About the author:

Janani B.

Janani has a Master's in Design Thinking and writes frequently about UX, design, psychology, and other topics.