Table of Contents
- What is a user persona?
- Why are user personas useful?
- User persona examples
- Soap Opera personas for software development
- How to create your own persona
- User persona action plan
- Next Steps
User persona's are great for helping you pivot around your audience's needs. They get you to think about the kind of people you want to help or whether you could have a bigger impact elsewhere. They also help you stay consistent in your messaging style, tone and type of content that you produce. Instead of writing about any random thing you happen to be interested in or are learning (that's for my Live Developer Journal), you intentionally write about things that your audience have told you they care about.
Marketers, writers, bloggers, gamers, developers and many more all have their own way of creating user personas, otherwise known as character sheets or buyer personas etc. While each of these personas might be used for different purposes, they are all examples of living documents which change as your character or customer evolves.
At the end of this article, you will find a User Persona Template that I use for The Essentialist Dev. It helps me plan content that I know actually matters to my audience based on their feedback. If you think my template can help you, it's yours to use. Otherwise, there are lots of different user persona types in this article to get inspiration from.
What Is A User Persona?
A user persona is a made-up character that represents your ideal customer. Personas are like the character sheets that writers use to capture and remember details about their characters, so that they can breathe more life into their stories, and also keep them consistent.
Personas are also popular in the blogging world, because they give you someone to write for. The way you talk to your best frind since childhood could be pretty different to the way you'd talk to your boss, your pets, or your elderly neighbour. So a persona in this case is a helpful reminder that you're blogging for your kittens, who might get a bit upset if you suddenly start posting about how much of a dog person you are.
Why Are User Personas Useful?
Personas are especially useful for tech because of how easy it is for the user to get lost in the process. This is especially true of Waterfall-like approaches (C2 Wiki, 2011), where users are heavily involved in the requirements assessment phases, only to be cut out until all of the requirements have been met years later.
In the meantime, many of their needs and goals changed, but the sofware stayed the same (followed the plan). So now they are stuck with a solution for what they asked for then, not what they need now. That's not even taking into account all of the surprises that show up in the first few hours of use, which usually happens when something that is obvious to the domain expert, that wasn't obvious to the developers/business analysts crops up.
That being said, user personas are no substitute for communicating regularly with your users. Instead, they are a great tool for helping us better understand our users, their needs, challenges and goals as they evolve over time.
Ideally, you would fill in your user persona with your user right next to you. Then, you would check in with them regularly to ask if anything has changed and needs to be updated. Those changes will need to be reflected in your software, so it's better to find them out earlier rather than later.
User Persona Examples
There are a lot of different tutorials out there for creating user personas. No two that I have come across so far have been the same. The reason they are all different depends on what their creators intend to use them for afterwards. Below are a few interesting examples, my favourite being the software-specific Soap Opera Persona (covered in the next section).
Marketing personas are used to help everyone (marketing, sales, product and services teams) understand exactly the kinds of customers they are trying to attract as a whole. It's a way to keep everyone on the same page, and to build empathy towards customers as real humans, instead of just demographics. The personas are also used to create lots of different content-creation plans, product development plans as well as sales follow-up calls (see Hubspot: How to create detailed buyer personas for your business, Pamela Vaughan, 2018).
Character sheets in fiction writing (Dawn Arkin, n/a) are a form of user personas that some writers use to keep track of character details. When writing a long book especially, it can be difficult to keep characters consistent over time. Unlike other types of user personas, character sheets are a lot more detail oriented. They describe the physical attributes of a character in detail, like the color of their eyes, stature, any identifying marks like tattoos or birth marks. They might also describe a characters personality quirks, their favourite food and memories etc.
Game character sheets (Travis Lionel, 2017) are kind of like version control for (mostly) Role-Playing Games (RPGs). Character sheets typically contain any important information about your character that might need to be referenced during game play. This is especially useful for rule-heavy games like Dungeons and Dragons (DnD), where the experience can be less immersive if you and your friends have to stop regularly to flip through the rulebook for a particular spell.
The one common thread tying each of these different personas together, is that they are a living document, destined to change as your character or customer evolves, or as you learn more about them.
Soap Opera Personas For Software Development
One of my favourite examples of a user persona is by Andy Palmer in his Soap Opera Personas, 2014 blog post. He found that many tech teams he was a part of would spend hours writing user personas, only to forget them immediately after they were written. The personas themselves would reference a very vague character, with the name 'Customer' or something close to that, with an equally vague set of characteristics, and a paragraph each about their history and motivation. While this was a useful exercise at the time, it was an immediate dead-end with no future return on investment (ROI).
So he came up with a different way of doing things that worked for him and his teams. Unlike the previous personas, these were used repeatedly throughout the development process, as a way of talking about users and their software counterparts. An extract:
In TV soap operas, we don’t get a big introduction to the characters at the beginning of the episode; We get thrown in at the deep end and we learn about the characters as they go about their daily lives.
The interesting thing to me about this approach is that the personas are actually mapped directly onto the software. We start out with a basic character that we don't really know all that much about. Andy's example was 'Carl the Customer Service Agent', which is a little more human than 'Customer Service Agent'. Carl might actually be a CSA in his client's company (bonus points if he is), but in this example, Carl is a part of the software with his own roles and responsibilities.
As we learn more about Carl (develop his functionality after conversations with the real human Carl or his equivalent), we can expand the persona and give him more capabilities in the software. When we come across a behaviour that doesn't really fit with what we know about Carl, e.g. It's not his job to do the reporting and admin, then we can create a new persona called 'Sharon the Supervisor' who handles those responsibilities.
How To Create Your Own User Persona
Before making a user persona, ask yourself if you really need one. Will it help you meet your customer's needs more effectively, or are you going to forget about it as soon as you have made it? I actually put off making mine for a little while until I knew it could help me add some real value to you, my readers.
The reason I needed to come up with a user persona or two is because I needed to make sure the content I create actually helps the people I'm trying to reach. When I was struggling to become a developer, I said to myself that when I get there, I want to make it much easier for others to do the same. So my first persona was actually a snapshot of who I was back then as well as a list of things I was struggling with at the time.
Once I had that basic persona in place, I then went onto Twitter and started asking people who were teaching themselves to program what their biggest challenges were, and what their goals were. Those two questions were key to setting up this website, where each of the four main action plan categories revolve around the most common needs mentioned, with room to adapt over time.
I used Hubspot's Persona Generator to come up with my first few personas, because the questions included in it are pretty useful, and it's also quite lightweight - easy to evolve.
After a few iterations, I came up with my own persona character sheet, which you can print off and fill in if you think it will be useful for you. Please let me know in the comments if you would like to see any changes to it, or if you found it helpful.
User Persona Action Plan
Below is a downloadable user persona template that I created. You can download it by clicking the button below:picture_as_pdf
Your challenge for this article is to think about who your target audience is, whether you're builing a program for someone, or writing articles for a specific audience. Give them a name, age, gender, job role, a challenge they are facing and one of their goals or objectives. If you're not creating anything for a specific audience right now, use yourself as an example. It might help you understand better what you are trying to do and what's holding you back.
If you completed the challenge, high five for taking action! Bonus points if you leave a comment with the mini persona you came up with!