How To Create a Persona and Pitfalls to Avoid

Published 12/12/2018 08:36 AM   |    Updated 05/16/2019 10:17 AM
Who’s interested in developing products, services and features that users never knew they wanted? Who wants to build a strong, long-lasting relationship with their users?

If that’s you, then it’s time to create a persona.

This is our second installment in a three-part series where we’ll be focusing on persona creation and how to avoid persona pitfalls.

Creation process

In our first article, “Understand Personas, Understand What Users Want,” we gave you the basic creation process:

  • Interview and/or observe users.
  • Collect and analyze data.
  • Verify user and business goals, needs, behaviors and problems.
  • Refine and edit details.
  • Repeat.

Create a persona.

Provisional personas are based on secondhand perspectives of the user. An example of this would be having the analytics and survey results for an expense reporting tool but not having firsthand interviews or observations of actual users. This type could be considered the “base” of all personas.


There are a lot of different persona examples and templates out there and, after evaluation and personal use, we’ve based our templates off Lauren Klein's template from the book "Build Better Products." This template appears to be quite an effective base and starting point.

In our experience, people learn from doing, and they learn from their mistakes. For that reason, we created a template using Klein’s as our base and outlined what goes into each section. Then, during our workshops, we broke the audience into groups and passed out our template and some examples found online for the participants to reference as they tried to create their personas.

We didn’t, however, tell them what was right, wrong or indifferent. The point was for them to take action and then learn. We encourage you to do the same. Take 10 minutes, download the template and try creating a persona of your own. The template also includes a case study describing a requested project.

From our workshop

If you don’t have time to create your own persona, we’d like you to be able to learn from others. Below you’ll find some of the personas created during our workshop. Once you’ve looked over the workshop personas, read on to learn how to avoid common pitfalls when creating personas.

Persona pitfalls to avoid

Not identifying the users

How can you understand the users if you don’t know who the users are? In our case study within our template, who are the 75% who said they’d use a mobile expense tool? Was there other information in the survey that could tell us how mobile access would make the process more efficient for the user? How it would save the user time?

Does making this application mobile mean the users have access to the company intranet before they get home or over the weekend? Identifying the user and performing initial research can help us answer these questions and find possible pitfalls, such as users being unable to even use a mobile feature because they must be connected to the intranet.

By understanding user intent and motivations, you can avoid potential mistakes that could occur if you create a product without user insights and feedback.

Getting caught up by a user’s role

This can be challenging, but “roles” group users by the tasks they perform. They don’t inform you when, why or how a user performs those tasks. With that in mind, you might need multiple personas per role to accurately capture or focus on the user.

Think about someone who has the same role/job title as yourself. Do you behave exactly the same? Do you do everything at the same time? Do you prioritize every task the same? The user’s role is only a piece of a persona, not the entirety.

Not understanding the user

When it comes to personas, the most talked about aspect is empathy.

Empathy allows you to understand the user holistically. What was the user doing when he or she came across your product? What is he or she thinking or feeling, and how does that affect what he or she sees and how he or she acts? What frustration is present, and how does it affect the user’s action and opinion?

Emotion supersedes sense and logic in most user situations. User interest and emotion can play a big part in whether or not a product will be used. Just because you can see the technical usefulness of something doesn’t mean users will want or use it. When designing for a user, and not an object, you need to design with emotions in mind. And the only way to do that is to take the time to understand the user as a whole.

A warning before you proceed with your user persona creation

Jumping in to trying to understand the user too soon can lead to problems. How can you understand someone when you don’t know anything about him or her? This is why identifying the user and doing the initial research and discovery is important, and the first pitfall to avoid.

Let’s go back to our case study (located in our template). Is mobile access more efficient for the user because it has a simplified user interface? Or is it because it’s right in front of the user and he or she can take immediate action? Or maybe it’s the fact that if feels cool and modern, and who doesn’t want to use the latest and greatest?

Maybe the user isn’t entering his or her expense report on time because he or she travels a lot, and nights and weekends are dedicated to family time. Knowing the behaviors, emotions and surrounding environment the user is in allows you to identify requirements that focus on the user and how he or she will use your service or product.

Understanding how users will emotionally respond to products and features can guide the development process. You may learn you just need to update the current experience, instead of developing new features.

Not analyzing for patterns

Now, you might be thinking if a persona provides you with this much knowledge into your users and that leads to features that are actually used, then why not have one for as many users as possible? Yes, creating more personas can lead to insights, but it can also be like having too many cooks in the kitchen.

Grouping users with like problems, goals and behaviors provides focus and priority. In our workshop, each of our six teams created a persona where the user was a traveling salesperson. Being able to take a photo of a receipt and upload it to the mobile app was very important to that persona.

There’s no sense in having six unique personas in this case. What’s important is to identify the like goals, highlight the pattern and consolidate into a single persona. A single persona creates focus and allows the team to prioritize and design to meet a specific persona’s needs. That doesn’t mean you won’t have multiple personas, but it’s important to group like patterns and minimize when possible.

Not sharing with others

Too often, the User Experience (UX) team leads the user research, creates the personas and then doesn’t share the results with the rest of the team. Team inclusion can lead to new insights while creating a common language and goal. When the team understands and empathizes with the user, it motivates them to want to fix user problems, and motivation leads to innovative solutions.

Not updating frequently

Not adjusting and refining based on new insights or business needs will lead to irrelevant user personas. Are you the same person you were a year ago? Do you do everything the same way? User habits, knowledge, problems and goals change and evolve.

Let’s think about how we communicate with each other. First, we started with the spoken word. Then letters were formed, followed by the invention of the telephone, which led to email and text messaging. And now there’s social media.

All are still valid forms of communication, but which do you use more? Which does your user use? If you aren’t updating your personas to reflect current user behaviors, then your personas won’t be pertinent to the design problem at hand.

Being generic

If you target everyone, you target no one. You aren’t targeting 24- to 54-year-old field agents. You’re targeting Mary, who’s 53, loves cooking for her two grandkids, lives in Chicago and works part time.

How can you connect with an age range of 18–54 years? You can’t. Including relevant personal details about your user in your persona leads to emotional connections. Understanding your user’s unique needs and limitations will reveal inspired and great design.

Personas created effectively

Filling out a template to create a persona is easy, but refining the personas over time and focusing on the behaviors, emotions and patterns that lead to robust, effective products takes diligence and practice. Be sure to review the persona you created earlier.

Now that you know some of the pitfalls, would you change anything about the persona you created? Bookmark this article so you can continue to refine your personas over time.

Still curious about whether you should create a persona? Read our next installment in this series as we dive deeper into how personas can be used to generate successful user stories that add value.

Part 2 of the personas article series was authored by Jessica Rensing with contributions from Kris Schroeder.



This article originally appeared on June 26, 2018.

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