User personas shape the foundation of user experience (UX) design. The practice of UX design hinges on the idea that frequently used and well-liked mobile apps are designed for people using empathy and known patterns of human-machine interaction.
For a mobile product to address genuine user needs, product teams need a comprehensive understanding of the people who will use the product—their behaviors, goals, challenges, motivations, needs, demographics, interests, and unique identifiers. In mobile app development, user research informs strategic product decisions to create a user-centric design. While there are many user research methods, processes, and tools available to build user-friendly mobile apps, developing user personas is one of the most effective ways to gather insight into a target audience group. A user persona humanizes research data and influences design decisions using information from a real person rather than a generic user.
People instinctively relate to other people. A user persona is a tool that transforms data into a realistic character with wants, needs, motivations, and frustrations. User personas help product teams understand and empathize with people who will use the product to create a solution that fits the context of the user’s goals. The principal purpose of a user persona is to help designers and product teams see an app’s end-user as more than a stereotype to identify with and envision the user’s life accurately.
By definition, a user persona is a semi-fictitious representation of a product’s ideal user that is defined by user research. The goals and characteristics of user personas represent the needs of a larger group. Mobile app user personas help product teams customize every aspect of a mobile product to a specific user group’s preferences and needs. Everything from branding and in-app content to functionality, features, and platform choice need to resonate with target users.
Typically, a user persona is a one or two-page document. This document includes details about a persona’s needs, goals, attitudes, and demographic information like age, gender, occupation, geographical location, and personality. A user persona template doesn’t need to address every aspect of the user’s life but needs to focus on the characteristics that impact the product’s design direction.
Creating user personas is a team effort. UX design isn’t just the responsibility of one department or an individual designer. The whole product team needs to be involved in the UX design process. Everyone involved in a project should understand the product’s target user.
Product teams refer to user personas throughout the entire project lifecycle as a reminder of who will use the end product. For this reason, it’s practical to avoid creating lengthy documents that are difficult to interpret in a glance. Instead, user persona templates are easily accessible summaries in which the most significant insights stand out immediately.
The overarching goal for creating user personas is to create a character as if they are alive. While it’s important to create a believable representation, each piece of information included in a user persona must serve a purpose and contribute to the product’s strategic design direction.
The style and formatting of a user persona template will vary. Realistically, the type of project, timeline, budget, and available research data will define the final deliverable. Below is a brief step-by-step guide for creating a user persona.
Product teams use user research to inspire designs, evaluate the effectiveness of the product’s solution, and to measure the business impact of the final product. More importantly, user research places people at the heart of every product decision.
Effective user personas start with user research. User research is the only way to achieve an accurate understanding of the people interacting with the product. Conducting interviews and observational studies of people in the contexts where they will use the product will reveal different mindsets, motivations, pain points, and behaviors. User research insights are necessary for ensuring that the product’s design direction is relevant to users. The amount of research that goes into creating a user persona template influences the accuracy of the representation. Sometimes, the constraints of a project don’t allow for any field studies, and in that case, web or app analytics and competitive analysis can serve as the basis for user persona templates. By conducting research, product teams avoid creating stereotypical or entirely fictional representations of the end-user.
The next step is to identify user characteristics and behavioral patterns that emerge from user research. Once you start grouping these traits and behaviors into clusters, clear identities begin to form. Often, several user personas will surface from research. If multiple personas appear too similar, consolidate them, or eliminate the user groups that don’t contribute to the product’s business goals.
After collecting all the data, it’s time to construct each persona’s description. Aurora Harley, a User Experience Specialist with the Nielson Norman Group, identifies several essential components in a user persona description:
Try not to include too many personal details in a user persona description. Too many details can discredit the persona as a useful analytical tool. Don Norman, the first to coin the term user experience, explains that user personas “only need to be realistic, not real, and not necessarily even accurate (as long as they accurately characterize the user base).”
As mentioned above, multiple personas can manifest from research, and if this scenario occurs, it’s essential to prioritize personas. It’s best practice to have a primary persona, and follow the rule “design for the primary—accommodate the secondary.”
Mobile app user personas are only valuable when they’re active in interaction scenarios. A scenario illustrates how a particular persona will interact with the mobile product in a relevant context to achieve the primary goal. This process is how product teams determine the product’s core user journeys. Scenarios are always written from the persona’s perspective and are high-level depictions of the product’s user flow.
Sharing the final user personas with the entire product team is vital to the project as a whole. All team members, including stakeholders, need to internalize user personas to find value in them. As the team builds a positive association with the final personas, they will begin to speak of them as real people. As a result, design decisions will naturally evoke empathy towards the product’s core users.
The next part of this article will illustrate the information above with an example of a user persona template.
For this exercise, the example will reference an imaginary fitness app. More specifically, a fitness app that allows users to search, read details, and register for fitness classes in a selected area. The app also enables business owners to add class listings. For consistency, the example app is named FoundFitness.
FoundFitness has two personas. The primary persona is users searching for fitness classes, and the secondary persona is owners of fitness clubs who are looking to list their services. Below is one variation of FoundFitness’s primary persona.
“Personas are the single most powerful design tool that we use. They are the foundation for all subsequent goal-directed design. Personas allow us to see the scope and nature of the design problem.”
Alan Cooper, Software Designer and Creator of Visual Basic
The importance of user personas for UX design is manifold, using personas in mobile app development offers the following advantages:
Empathy is a critical element in UX and user-centric design.
Good UX leaves a lasting impression. Many companies struggle when it comes to providing meaning and forming a connection with users. Meaningful products have personal significance and resonate with users by aligning with their values. Many products in the market are aesthetically pleasing and usable but still lack meaning. It’s essential to determine what impression the product leaving with its users. This distinction is the difference between an app that users return to and one they uninstall. Empathizing with users is an essential component of UX design. As much as possible, designers need to step outside their frame of reference and become the user if they’re going to create a mobile solution that stands out in the market.
Building user empathy is the first stage in the design thinking process. IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit defines empathy in design thinking as a “deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for.” Empathizing with users involves learning about their challenges and discovering their latent needs to explain their behaviors better. The empathizing process involves observing and engaging with people the product is intended for and experiencing their physical environment.
With the help of user personas, product teams can:
While most of a user persona description is rooted in research findings, it is still partially fictitious. When creating user persona descriptions, the data needs to be balanced with some fictional elements to create empathy. Striking the right balance is vital. If the persona is created from too much research data and the design direction can lose focus, and if every detail is imaginary, the persona loses credibility.
According to the Nielson Norman Group, the false consensus effect refers to people’s tendency to assume that others share their beliefs and behave similarly in a given context. Only people who are very different from them would make different choices. This scenario poses a real problem in UX design and often results in stereotypes and over-generalizations. By creating user personas, designers acknowledge this bias and design a user interface for someone who may not understand the experience in the same way as the product team. Through user research and testing, product teams can identify a completely different frame of reference from their own and then design for the experience level of that persona.
Similarly, individuals with specific knowledge about particular business functions will solve problems on their own level of experience. It’s very easy for designers to make decisions and view challenges from a departmental lens. Referring to user personas helps replace self-referential design decisions with more user-focused solutions.
Raw data is often difficult to interpret; however, a persona encapsulates the research and communicates the trends to others in a way that they can understand and visualize. There are usually people with varying skills and expertise in a product team that could potentially cause a difference of opinion. A user persona is an excellent tool to avoid confusion and miscommunication throughout the development process. The persona communicates ideas and concepts with the product team and stakeholders. Effectively, a mobile app user persona ensures that everyone is on the same page and understands who will be using the product.
User personas bring generic user groups to life so that product teams can identify with them on a personal level. With data and empathy, user personas improve the quality and efficiency of design work. Designers can address user pain points accurately while meeting the needs of the business. Additionally, narrowing in on a specific set of users will yield higher download rates, and more importantly, it will maintain in-app engagement over time.