UX Foundations – Personas



Persona is a term that is thrown around often in interactive, product development, and marketing industries. The addition of a defining type such as “User” persona, “Customer” persona, “Brand” persona, and so on helps narrow down the use case for the type of human being you are creating an intentional archetype for. However, saying persona and actively creating and applying one are quite different. Like any trend, we have seen the rise of people calling out personas in social media posts, passing conversations, and internal documentation. But they are not always well established and general enough to be of value.

To make a persona valuable you require 3 core ingredients: 

  1. Target Audiences in mind to base your personas on. A pool of similar target people to base your persona characteristics on who will actively engage with the systems you want them to engage with. This may be a user of an app, website, or platform, a consumer likely to buy a product, or a human likely to react to a brand or experience directed toward them. You require more than one person in this subject pool and it CANNOT be yourself. Human beings are naturally biased in their points of view. You can’t change that. The dangerous thing in building personas is to assume you know it all.
  2. Active participants to help you build the personas in collaborative session(s). A vocal group of people who have firsthand experience with these people who can relate to you who they are and what motivates them. This does NOT include yourself.
  3. A plan to build and apply the persona(a) you have to make them the common language and culture of your company. This includes an agenda on how to build the persona(s) with the participants, an accessible location for the personas to live where everyone on the staff can access them, and a way to train new staff as the personas evolve or expand.

A Real Use Case 

When I start working with a new type of user or industry I am not familiar with I tend to ask the same question often every time I was asked to look at a user experience or interface: “Who is using it, what are they doing, what is their motivation?”. It became clear that we needed a common language to fast-track these and other questions so we could design as well as test designs.

This led us to create 5 unique personas to use and reference over a series of collaborative workshops with different staff members. I won’t share those personas here – they are private within the firm on purpose and as valuable as any IP a firm uses. Personas are often the secret sauce of product design that separates leaders from followers as it forces you to create solutions based on the needs of the user.

Once the personas were built we documented them in our online resource for all staff to access, we build them into a selection required for any design task along with some other key user questions, and we began to train new hires and current staff. We even went one step further tapping into my past parallel experience in marketing linking user behavior to communication methods to categorize any platform user as a sales target, influencer, or valuable consumer testimonial subject for the executives most likely to make a purchase decision. This is a key subject I’ll go into later in this article – very often your high-traffic users are not decision-makers for marketing and sales if you are a B2B product or solution. 

Creating An Agenda

So where do we start? I started by creating an agenda and lining up a 90-minute slot of time where we could get a large group of people together in person in a large boardroom. I work remotely, but for this first session it was essential to create a dynamic and energetic environment to encourage sharing or I traveled to the office to host in person. We then hosted 4 additional sessions virtually. 

Here is an example of the agenda and schedule for the day I use:

  • 5 minutes – Introduction by host: Agenda Review, Host Duties & Workshop Goal.
  • 10 minutes – Persona Review: Share an example persona. 
  • 5 minutes – Warm-Up exercise: An exercise to get people engaged. 
  • 20 minutes – Persona Card & Taits Card: building the first 2 cards of the persona.
  • 20 minutes – Decision flow example: building 1-2 user flows for this persona. 
  • 20 minutes – Marketing options to the persona: building a communication card for this persona breaking out their needs and how to talk to them.
  • 5 minutes – Wrap up: Reviewing all the effort and letting the participants know what is happening next with the created persona. 

Here is a more detailed breakdown of the content and approach we worked through for each section of the session.

Rules of Hosting 

Establish the host rules. If you are not clear about your role as a host of a session you will quickly find you are doing all the talking. That is not the point. Remember earlier when I mentioned the danger of creating personas in a vacuum? The role of the host who is gathering and building the personas is to engage, keep the conversation flowing, document the discussion, and stay impartial. 

I like establishing my role concerning what I will or won’t be doing:

What I WILL be doing today:

  • Asking questions
  • Documenting the discussion
  • Keeping us on schedule
  • Refining the personas after and sharing them back

What I will NOT be doing today:

  • Answering questions
  • Doing all the talking

The Persona Review and Warm-Up

For this first session, I had already created an initial persona with a smaller private internal group the week before that I could do a quick walkthrough of to show what we would be creating together. This is a great way to ease the group into understanding visually what a persona is. I’ve used lots of templates but lately, I have used a 4 card template that creates 4 specific pages/slides profiling the user. 

You can use any tool you want, In a physical space you can simply stick sticky notes on the wall into a few sections of a bit whiteboard to be purely analog or use a collaborative whiteboard application that lets any remote participants engage people in the room with laptops. It also skips the hours of digitizing photos of the session later. Lately, I’ve been using Figma’s Fig Jam whiteboards which have the ability for users to join in open sessions without logging in, vote and add stickers and digital sticky notes, and give me a timer to keep track of each session.

For a warm-up session, you want something that will drive engagement and be fun for the group to get the conversation flowing. One of my favorite ways to do this is to have a list of real users or clients or people the group will know who match the general types of users or customers we can build personas out of and have the team vote on the session’s target persona. This creates an emotional connection to the persona so they can relate it to real-world people and also creates ownership through the voting process. 

Persona shortlist

Before your 1st session create a persona shortlist. This is what you build with the firm’s key stakeholders, directors, managers, and executives and gives you the general types of people they feel need, use, or buy their product or service. I always map them out with a few elements in a column. This becomes a living list that is voted on and also color-coded to which ones are “done” after a session. Through multiple sessions, you will often combine them as you find some are closer to the same user than you originally thought.

Personas are exaggerations of users or consumers. They can often be slightly stereotypical as you want to exaggerate a person’s traits to ensure your group of personas are different and not shades of the same user. This helps you quickly look at a problem and say “Purchaser Pat” would hate how many clicks it takes to get to their shopping cart….they don’t have time in their busy life for that!”. It is important to remind your group that you are not picking on real people. You are using a group of people in your mind to create a “new” persona that is made up to give you an archetype to quickly feel or see how someone other than you would react to a solution or problem.

User TypeReal PeopleJob RolsManager(M), Exec(E), Worker(W)ActionsFeatures
EX: Super User(clients, family, friends, famous people)AnalystWEX: highly active, often requests enhancementsEX: report building features

Flow shortlist

Before your 1st session, you should also create a flow shortlist. This is a potential user flow to run the target persona through as a team in the session. If you are selling a product on an e-commerce site for example you may want to pick something like adding a product to a cart or list. If you are a B2B tool that helps a dealership sell cars it may be something like how to create a marketing campaign in the tool or find and export a sales lead list. If during the session additional example flows come up be sure to note them down for this or the next workshop. 

Building a Persona in 4 Steps

I tend to create 4 cards or slides that create a well-rounded persona. There is no set requirement but they should cover the following buckets of information: 

  1. An overview or bio of who this persona is and their personality traits
  2. A breakout of things that interest, influence, motivate, and demotivate them
  3. A visual user flow or two
  4. A marketing type with a job role or company challenges, ways your product or service can help them, followed by ways you can market to them

Profile Card (10 minutes)

The profile card is an introduction. On a single slide or card, you should be able to get an idea of who this user is and feel like you can relate to them. There are lots of versions on there I use one that fills in the following details:

  • A profile image (illustrated headshot or stock photo). This is because we relate better to personas when we have some visual stimulation. If you are creating multiple personas you can get away with one. But if you are only creating one persona you should consider a selection of a few people so that you don’t accidentally narrow down race.
  • Name – I wait until the end of the session then pick or create a generic fun name that combines a first name and role or type to make them catchy and memorable. 
  • Job Title(s) – A job or series of jobs they will often have
  • Age – an age range or minimum/maximum age. Are they under 21? Are they 30s-50s? Are they 65+?
  • Location – Is there an area of the world where the office or the company this person is the most? How someone in the ivory tower of a large firm interacts with something is very different than the worker on the ground or the vendor knocking on their door.
  • Type – Take the type from the shortlist if everyone agrees or evolve it in the session to give a general type like a strategic user, everyday user, occasional user, etc.
  • Bio – A bio is 1-2 paragraphs written about this person and what their day or job looks like. These are hard to write this early as they are often influenced by more conversations in the session. What I find works best is asking people to simply “describe” this person for me. I make notes, write down key phrases or keywords, and ask a lot of questions like “What does this person do when they get up in the morning? How are they at work – are they chatty or head down working? What do they do on the weekends?”. When the session is done I then take notes and craft a bio that combines all the traits and behaviors. It’s a bit of a craft so don’t feel you will nail this quickly or in the session. 
  • Personal Traits – I’ve seen this done in many ways. My personal favorite is a visual series of line scales with opposites like “Introvert ——— Extrovert” or “Safe———Risky”. Then I ask the team to place where they think about where this person sits on the line.

Behavior Card (10 minutes)

Now that we are trying to get into the head of this person it’s time to get the audience more engaged. Whether it is sticky notes on a wall or virtual notes on a whiteboard tool, I set up 5 categories with specific questions for each. Set the timer for 10 minutes and ask people to start writing down examples. I also always try to pose the question in first person – this helps start to move the real people examples over to me as a fictional construct:

My Interests – What are my hobbies? What do I like?My expectations – what do I need to expect from others or my tools?
My Goals – What do I want to be in 5 years? Do I want a promotion or travel more?My Motivations – What drives me? Curiosity, anger, excitement, the unknown?
My Influences – Who or what influences my choices? Peers, family, data?My pains – What or who gets in the way of my success? What do I complain about?

There are no right or wrong answers. And these are just a guide. Depending on the industry, tool, product, service, or user you are building they may change or you may do less or more.

User Flow Card (20 minutes)

This can often be the most challenging part of the session. Asking the group to now take all these ideas and generalizations of a person and apply them to real examples of what the user or customer may do. You are switching gears to a very tangible application, so you may need to guide this along depending on the group. I find the best way is to continue to ask questions and take on the persona. Pick from a short list of possible actions or flows the user or customer may do, let the team vote on what they feel they can best walk through then just take it one step at a time. 

Think of this as DECISION-based not pure click paths and not user journeys. We want to think about how they FEEL, THINK, and ACT based on their character traits. The goal is to find issues that may lead to enhancements in the product, service, or brand to better service them.

Start with this question to the group, “What are two typical things I regularly do that your platform or solution would be a part of?”

Then map out the flow visually with boxes and arrows or if you are using a digital tool that can make diagrams you can build it quickly with your audience. If you are doing a longer persona session like a half day you can even break into teams and each take a single problem and map it out then review with the full group. 


By the end of each user flow you should naturally meet with the following questions to answer together:

  1. What does this teach us?
  2. What can we learn from this?

Communication Card (20 minutes)

The communication card or slide isn’t as common as the other details for a persona. Often companies end up with marketing and sales personas and user personas. There is natural overlap but they aren’t always interchangeable. The point of adding a final addition of one-to-user personas is to better link a user to a customer in the marketing or sales funnel. They don’t have to be complex unless you have no marketing personas. Then you may want to add more specific marketing notes like the elevator pitch.

I like to first establish what type of marketing profile the user has. Are they key decision-makers like an executive owners or consumers if you are talking B2C, or are they an influencer to the decision-maker? 

I group them into 3 general categories:

  1. Decision Maker – Owners, c-class, executives, budget owners
  2. Key Influencer – Directors, managers, super users, industry standouts with influence
  3. Testimonial Provider – Users, the general population, are often very active but not always a decision maker if the product or solution is B2B. However, they provide a very valuable base of testimonials for marketing or influencing decision-makers. If they aren’t happy, the higher-ups will hear about it. 

This is a large label added to the card that is easy to read like the card title.

Then in a similar session to the behavior card you divide the whiteboard, wall, or digital whiteboard into 4 sections and ask the group to add sticky notes of examples to each within the time limit. Depending on the category and the group – do you have marketing or salespeople in the working session (you should) – this can take 5 minutes or 20 minutes. A key sales target will have more to talk about than a user who is only valuable as a testimonial or influencer to a decision-maker. 

Again for each of the 4 sections, I always try to pose the question in the first person:

Business Challenge – What business challenges affect me?Product/Service Features That Help Them – What are features that benefit me in my job duties?
Job Role Challenge – What are the key challenges of my job?Reaching them – What sort of marketing or messages speak to me? Where will you find me to market to?

Now what?

Now that you have finished the workshop the next step is to let it sit for a bit and refine the documentation. Read it all over, and clean up spelling, grammar, and duplicated ideas. Group sticky notes into subgroups and label them. Begin to form your overview bio based on all the information with some key examples. If you want to spend time making it look nicer so they look professional and polished for your company now is a great time to do it. 

Finally, share back the final persona with the group for any additional notes or issues and give them a deadline for feedback of 1-2 days. This is an information-heavy process. You want to ensure people have a good memory of the discussion and can stay on topic. Create the final persona document or link. I have used Wikis, Web Portals, and Confluence in the past to host the latest personas. If you have more than one user or customer type book the additional sessions. I find these are usually best to be done weekly until you are done with fewer people and with a 1-hour timelimit now that everyone knows how the session will go.

Making the persona(s) is only the start of the work. If they are not used or discussed regularly they become useless. The next goal is to work on creating a user culture within the organization. Look for ways to ensure everyone learns them by name and has a general understanding of their value whenever a discussion happens that involves the product/service and features. When you are marketing you should be asking yourself who is your audience and how do we want to talk to them – what features will they or those under them use the most? When you are talking about adding or fixing features within the tool or service start with the user and which persona(s) will use it first. 

Finally, consider your feedback loop. If you have willing clients you should look at ways to involve them for general and specific testing. There are a ton of tools for everything from general user testing and market testing as well as prototype task-oriented testing. Since your personas are based on your users or customers it only makes sense that you need to proof changes and new features with them for validation. This may also in time help evolve your persona(s) or splinter into new ones as you naturally scale a business or service offering.


About the Author:

Todd Lawson is a creative/art director who has made commercials, brands, software, and ad campaigns, who understands tech and designs UI & UX, a designer who does large-scale paintings, a painter who writes articles, and a writer who is constantly curious about what’s next. His curiosity has garnered Cannes Lions, One Show Pencils, CA’s, Cassies, and countless other accolades. In 2014 & 2015, he was Ranked 9th & 15th Best Art Director by Strategy Magazine’s Creative Report Card. As Digital User Experience Lead and Associate Creative Director, Todd helped Grey Canada win ADCC’s 2013 Agency Of The Year. But the story doesn’t stop there. In 2015 Todd left Grey to Co-lead the complete transformation of Dashboard, his past agency, from a 16-year-old marketing firm into a Software SaaS Development Company, successfully selling it to tech firm Vicimus in under 2 years. Todd then led the company rebrand, developed departmental processes, guided UI/UX for products, oversaw and built external marketing plans, and rebuilt creative and design teams.

See 20+ years of curiosity at www.toddlawsoncreative.com

Vertical Experience: Automotive, AutoTech, Alcohol, B2B/B2C, CPG, Cosmetics, DTC, Entertainment, fashion, Financial, Food, Gaming, Health & Wellness, Insurance, Marine, Not-for-profit, Pharma, Publishing, Software, Retail, Tech, Trade events.

Gallery Artist since 2004. Commercial artist/illustrator since 2001. See artwork at www.toddlawson.com