We love stories—they’re our oral history. They’re how we relate to one another and make sense of the world—why shouldn’t we embrace the same when designing for our users? In the era of Big Data, we’re swimming in user data: demographics, interests, browsing, social media. Organizations are segmenting data to find the customer clusters they want to target.

With advanced analytics, organizations are better equipped than ever to segment and cluster customers. With the data in hand, going to a team and saying, “we need to optimize our website for these three segments”—seems like a logical course of action. However, certainly with the best intentions, this direction will lead to a design for an elastic user—users are people and, unfortunately, cannot be stretched like Play-Doh.

If a team designs for too many different users or if its user definition is fluid (e.g., moves from novice to experienced), the result will be an inconsistent, clunky interface replete with superfluous features. Personas can facilitate a consistent design.

Personas Are User Archetypes

“Personas are profiles of fictional characters or people based on ethnographic research, surveys or interviews. Most famously personas get fancy head-shots and names like ‘Marcus’ or ‘Shannon.’ The people and pictures can be fictional, but the details should be factual…They are archetypical users whose goals and characteristics represent the needs of a larger group of users. They function as stand-ins for real users to guide decisions about design and functionality” (Sauro, 2012).

Personas put a face on and provide a narrative for market segments. They describe actual (fictitious, perhaps) users and behaviors, and they group users by tasks. Personas tap into our orality, our collectivity—in short, our humanity. Personas enable a team to view customer clusters as unique individuals with backgrounds, goals, desires, needs, and aptitudes. These archetypes provide a narrative that helps us keep focus and long-term-memory because we best learn and retain information anecdotally.

“The communicational benefits arise from summarizing customer information into an intuitive format of representation that can be communicated with little effort within organizations, teams, departments, and with external stakeholders. In theory, personas provide an engaging description of the end users’ needs and wants, in the form of another human being that is more memorable than numbers” (Salminen, Jansen, An, Kwak, & Jung, 2018).

The power of personas lies in their psychological benefit to those working on a project: “…decision makers can obtain an empathic understanding of users, immersing themselves in real situations experienced by others. Decision makers can use this ability to predict customer behavior under different circumstances. This mental modeling relies on human beings’ innate ability of empathy and immersion, and is, therefore, a powerful agent for enhanced motivation and purpose” (Salminen et al., 2018).

Personas facilitate focus. By putting a face on and giving a voice to users, they make users concrete and reduce the risk of designing for an elastic user.

What Do Personas Include?

Personas are flexible, and there are no strict guidelines, but, generally, they include some of the following:

  • A fictional Name
  • A picture
  • A Role/persona group
  • Demographics (age, occupation, marital status, etc.)
  • Quotes reflecting its attitude toward a company’s website, app, service or product, etc.
  • The motivation for using a website or app
  • Frustrations/pain points
  • Environment (physical, social and technological)

Personas were popularized by Alan Cooper in his 1998 book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, and were intended to be backed by field research (often involving ethnographic elements) and qualitative data.

Concerns about Personas

Expensive and Time-Consuming

Traditional data-backed personas are expensive. UX Magazine estimates as a standalone project persona development costs between $80,000 to $120,000 (O’Connor, 2011) and more conservative estimates are at tens of thousands of dollars. Because of the depth of the research required, personas can take months to create. The costs of persona projects may prevent small businesses and startups from using them.

Not Credible and Inaccurate

Personas are created through a small number of qualitative interviews and may not be statistically accurate. They potentially include the biases of the creators or biases in the way the interview subjects are selected. Some people feel that personas are inconsistent because they are constructed by mashing information from unrelated data sources.

Number-oriented decision-makers are often at odds with personas. “Even when using the best practices of qualitative inquiry, number-oriented decision makers may consider personas as ‘nice narratives’ instead of serious decision-making instruments, resulting in the resistance for the use of personas” (Salminen et al., 2018).

Are Digital Data Driven Personas the Answer?

The rise of and use of Digital Data Driven Personas should help lower the cost of developing personas. Salminen et al. (2018) defines Digital Data Driven Personas as a “bridge persona creation between quantitative data and computation techniques,” and outlined four benefits:

  1. The ability to automatically collect large volumes of data through application programming interfaces (APIs)
  2. Behavioral data (beyond survey and interview responses)
  3. Scalability – “data analysis algorithms and automatic systems can process millions of user interactions from millions of content pieces” (Salminen et al., 2018).
  4. Near real-time responsiveness (accounting for customer insights)

The good news is many organizations are already collecting behavioral data on their customers, which means data can be used toward personas. “…it [a company] can spend time and money mining data to get a strong understanding of who its customers are and why they do what they do. Such data can help to inform persona research and can reduce costs” (O’Connor, 2011).

“At its best, automatic data collection and analysis is cost-efficient and behaviorally accurate across the whole user base, providing excellent foundations for the creation of data-driven personas” (Salminen et al., 2018).

Being creative and using digital data an organization is already collecting can drive down the persona price tag. Using data also has the benefit of being unbiased because algorithms will provide the information, and it will also ensure accuracy because numbers are verifiable.

Combining digital data with traditional field research and qualitative data will yield accurate personas that may well be less cost prohibitive.

The reason for creating a few persons is to humanize the primary customer segments and use the personas through every step of the design process, e.g., “What would Johnny think about this feature?” Personas allow for narratives, and designing to address the narratives will improve any design.

If personas seem like a silly excuse to tell stories, here’s how Alan Cooper explains the effectiveness of personas. “…it would be more accurate to say that they [personas] are counter-logical. I suspect that this is why they originated in practice rather than in the laboratory or in academia. If, responding to the directive design for the user, you follow logic, you tend to canvass the user community, collect their requests for functions, and then provide them a product containing all of those functions. I call this ‘the sum of all desired features.’ There is abundant empirical proof that this solution is only marginally effective at best. The problem is that while logic is a powerful and effective programming tool, it is a pathetically weak and inappropriate interaction design tool.” (Cooper, 2008).

Embrace putting a face on your customers. It will keep your designs targeted and avoid unnecessary features. We are an anecdotal species, and nothing optimizes our work like a good story.


Cooper, A. (2008, May). The origin of personas. Retrieved from https://www.cooper.com/journal/2008/05/the_origin_of_personas?

Goltz, S. (2014, August 6). A closer look at personas: What they are and how they work. Smashing Magazine, Retrieved from https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2014/08/a-closer-look-at-personas-part-1/

O’Connor, K. (2011, March 25). Personas: The foundation of a great user experience. UX Magazine, Retrieved from http://uxmag.com/articles/personas-the-foundation-of-a-great-user-experience

Personas. Retrieved from https://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/personas.html

Salminen, J., Jansen, B. J., An, J., Kwak, H., & Jung, S. (2018). Are personas done? evaluating their usefulness in the age of digital analytics. Persona Studies, 4(2), 47-65. doi:10.21153/psj2018vol4no2art737

Sauro, J. (2012, July 31). 7 core ideas aabout personas and the user experience. Measuring U, Retrieved from https://measuringu.com/personas-ux/