Today I’m going to show you how to create better user personas. And by better, what I mean is a true understanding of a user that’s informed by the messy realities of what it’s like to be human. There are plenty of prescriptions for persona creation, but with the exception of Alan Cooper’s pioneering model, they’re all essentially the same: laundry lists that suggest it’s possible to understand a person’s motivation – and create an accurate, useful user persona – simply by checking boxes and asking questions related to behavior.

This is not that, because that, in my experience, doesn’t work.

So instead, I’m going to give you a practical process and two companion templates that will put you on the path to creating user personas that deliver real value to your design approach.

There are two key steps in this process:

  1. First, you have to develop empathy for the person. Empathy goes far beyond demographics, likes, dislikes, job roles and responsibilities. Empathy is about understanding the emotional drivers that affect the user’s behavior, because emotion will trump intellect in almost every situation users find themselves in. Design for the emotion and you’re truly designing for a person instead of a collection of possible attributes.
  2. Next, you have to uncover the person’s behavioral attributes in the context of multiple situations. What has the person just done or just finished doing when they encounter your product (site, app, tool)? What are they thinking and feeling at that moment, and how does that affect what they see and how they act? What stress is present in that situation, and how does it affect the person’s perception and action?

User Persona Creation Happens Earlier Than You May Think

As I said in an earlier Pick My Brain post, I create user personas twice. This is the first of those instances. It’s important you understand that I explore both of the areas noted above before any face-time with users, before I read any usage data the client has for me, before I hear from stakeholders what people are having trouble with or are complaining about.

The minute you have any of that data, your perception of who that user is, what situations they find themselves in and what causes them to perceive things or act in a certain way, has been irrevocably tainted. You are no longer objective and you will be fighting against what you know for the remainder of the project. And because of that, any user personas you create will be a lot less valuable to you than they could (or should) be.

So this is work I do at the outset of the project, before any discussions or interactions with users occur. The only things I typically know about the prospective users at this point are the following, which come from client stakeholders:

  1. Their job title (if B2B)
  2. Their basic day-to-day responsibilities (if B2B)
  3. How they use the product now
  4. What other products they use to do the same thing
  5. How the Client thinks they use the product
  6. What features the Client thinks are important to them

These serve as draft personas whose details will be filled in once I do start having those conversations and interviews. The idea is to start unbiased and then fill in the missing pieces. Working this way also allows what you learn about emotion and situations to illuminate those facts you find later during the interview process; what you already know will serve to shine a light on what you’re hearing, to clarify the connections between cause and effect.

The two worksheets I am giving you here are the primary tools you’ll use for this process. Both are adapted from multiple sources I’ve used throughout my career, so what you see here is a mashup of sorts. This is the stuff that has proven to be most valuable to me in terms of increasing the realism and accuracy of user motivations.

The first worksheet is meant to help you establish empathy for the user and map their perceptions, pressures, influences, beliefs and goals. The second is meant to help you explore all the possible situations in which the product or tool in question is being used, which will often reveal ways in which existing or possible features become more or less useful or desirable according to what’s happening at the time. Both, when combined, will give you a remarkably accurate sketch of a user persona whose motivations will most definitely affect your feature, function, UX and UI design decisions.

Here’s how to use these persona creation worksheets:

First: The Empathy Mapping Template

This template is meant to help you consider how other people think, and what they feel as a result. It’s purpose is to help you take a step back from focusing on user behaviors and focus on their emotions and experiences instead.

Start by thinking about the sensory experiences of the person across the six areas of the template, and write down what comes to mind as you do. Ask yourself the following questions and get down what comes to mind — remember, this is exploration, so you do not have to be right.

  • What does s/he likely believe? What does s/he worry about?
  • Where does s/he do their work, and in what ways do you think that environment influences decisions or constrains the ability to act?
  • From a social perspective, who influences how s/he thinks or what s/he does – bosses or coworkers? Friends? Family?
  • How does s/he want to be thought of and “seen,” at work or out in public? What image is sh/e trying to project across social media?
  • What fears and frustrations does s/he likely have, and what typical obstacles to success might be present?
  • What does s/he want, need or believe to be success?

Again, these are inferred guesses, and that’s OK. You will get closer to reality and throw out the things that don’t apply later on in the project. Right now, the only thing that needs to happen is for you to get your brain into the purposeful habit of trying to put yourself into that person’s heart and mind. Just go – think, write and examine. You may use multiple sheets for the same person, and you may find that coming back to your work a day or two after the fact helps you see it more clearly.

Next: The Situation Mapping Template

The situation mapping template is used to get closer to the specific situations this user will find herself in and begin mapping connections between situational factors and needs that arise as a result.

First, you describe the situation:

“Jane, a 911 operator, has just taken a call from a woman who is crying hysterically. and possibly hyperventilating Jane cannot understand a word she’s saying and the caller is not listening to the questions Jane is asking about her situation and location.”

Notice the stress inherent in the situation; this is important in painting a realistic picture, and helps you consider worst-case scenarios (which all design should account for). Next, if the situation is part of a multi-step process, you describe that step or phase. For example:

“The first thing Jane is required to do is ascertain the caller’s situation and location. She cannot dispatch any help to the woman until she gets this information”

Again, note the urgency of the situation, and the obstacle Jane, our user, faces: she cannot move to the next step in the process until she does something else first. So if Jane is looking at a UI that’s meant to coach her through these situations, for example, what does she need to access, how quickly does she need to see that it exists, and how easy does it need to be for her to access a method relevant to what she’s dealing with right now?

It’s important to remember that all users operate under some level of stress – even if it’s good stress, meaning you have a goal to accomplish and you feel some pressure to get your work done. As such, whenever possible, you want to emphasize areas of strain and stress in your situations. Consider creating multiple variations of a situations with varying degrees of urgency and stress, and work through each using the worksheet.

This makes the experience visceral for you and/or your team, and makes it easier to imagine how someone else might think and feel in a specific context.

When You Finish

When you finish both templates, have exhausted potential scenarios and have a fairly clear picture of your user persona and her situational and emotional motivators, ask yourself some questions:

  • What attributes or situational factors surprise you the most?
  • What aspects of your persona do you think you need to learn more about?
  • What situation has the most impact on your feature set?
  • What situation has the most potential to deliver real value to your persona?
  • What aspects of your persona or his/her situation will (or should) impact or influence your designs the most?

Download the Templates

That’s the story. Save or Print this email as a guide, and click or tap here to download the templates (PDF):

Use as many of these as you need, don’t be afraid to get it wrong, and don’t be worried if what you encounter or uncover raises more questions than answers; that’s the point. There is no straight line between user motivation and behavior. We humans are complex and messy, and as a result designing things we’ll use is equally messy and complex. There’s no way to do this wrong, unless you don’t do it at all. Try this out and I promise you, more than a few “A-HA!” moments will quickly make themselves apparent.

Until next time, GIVE GOOD UX!

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