Personas – Learning about Users

Gentile Introduction to Personas

Recall that “primary users” are the users that we are designing the app for while “secondary users” are users that we check the usability of the app against. So if I ask you, “Who are your primary and secondary users?” Perhaps your answer would be an item in the list below:

Primary users:

  • High school students
  • Community College students
  • MTU Environment Engineering students
  • Amateur scientist downloading the app

Secondary users:

  • High school teachers
  • Community College instructors
  • MTU professors

Note that the individual items in these lists categorize and make more specific the user. In a sense, they are short descriptions of a user. Having a description of the user is useful because rather than trying to design to the abstract “user”, you design to a more specific person such as a “high school student.” Designing for a specific user insures that your app will be usable for that user. The more specific and concrete the description of the user the more likely your design will be successful and usable.

Although items in the list above are short description of the users, they are not very descriptive and do not give you a good idea about the user. If you had a friend who is a Environmental Engineer then you would think that you have a good idea about the “MTU Environmental Engineering students”. If you were to describe a “MTU Environmental Engineering User”, your description would much like your friend. You could share this description with your development teammates that might not have an Environmental Engineering friend. If your description of your friend is elaborate enough your development teammates may feel that they too know this MTU Environmental Engineering student and can make design decision. Your description of your Environmental Engineering friend is a “persona”.

But, you may not have any friends that are high school students. Nevertheless do you think you can you give some attributes for the high school students?

  • Bully and tell others what to do
  • Does not pay attention
  • Eager to learn
  • Arrogant

Each of these items adds to the description of high school student. In other words:

  • Bully high school student
  • A high school student not paying attention
  • A high school student eager to learn
  • Arrogant student

Each item in the list gives us a better image of that user. You could add to these descriptions by asking:

  • How tall are they?
  • What are their ages?
  • What are the technology experiences?

In this way, you can build your description of your users and have a concrete vision for the user.


Personas are hypothetical descriptions of specific potential users. They are a member of a class of user. They are not generalities rather they are specific characteristics. These give your potential users a face.

Website for personas:


Personas are said to be cognitively compelling because they put a personal human face on otherwise abstract data about customers. By thinking about the needs of a fictional persona, designers may be better able to infer what a real person might need. Such inference may assist with brainstorming, use case specification, and features definition. Pruitt and Adlin argue that personas are easy to communicate to engineering teams and thus allow engineers, developers, and others to absorb customer data in a palatable format. They present several examples of personas used for purposes of communication in various development projects.

Personas also help prevent some common design pitfalls which may otherwise be easy to fall into. The first is designing for what Cooper calls “The Elastic User” — by which he means that while making product decisions different stakeholders may define the ‘user’ according to their convenience. Defining personas helps the team have a shared understanding of the real users in terms of their goals, capabilities and contexts. Personas also help prevent “self referential design” when the designer or developer may unconsciously project their own mental models on the product design which may be very different from that of the target user population. Personas also provide a reality check by helping designers keep the focus of the design on cases that are most likely to be encountered for the target users and not on edge cases which usually won’t happen for the target population. According to Cooper, edge cases which should naturally be handled properly should not become the design focus.

The benefits are summarized as (Cooper, 1999):

  • Help team members share a specific, consistent understanding of various audience groups. Data about the groups can be put in a proper context and can be understood and remembered in coherent stories.
  • Proposed solutions can be guided by how well they meet the needs of individual user personas. Features can be prioritized based on how well they address the needs of one or more personas.
  • Provide a human “face” so as to focus empathy on the persons represented by the demographics.

Some pitfalls of personas:

  • Not one persona describes all the characteristics of the users.
  • They cannot represent all the mix of characteristics.
  • A persona is not a real user.
  • Design may focus only their personas.


Persona documentation can be lengthy. They typically include photos. (There are companies that provide pictures for personas.) They are given a name and a profession. Persona descriptions include a list of demographics information such as age, weight, height, etc. Personality characteristics and behaviors are described in a paragraph.

Example Persona

Platoon A Private First Class

Private Jim Swayer

Age: 21

Height: 6′ 2″

Weight: 180 lbs

Right handed

Joe is an alert and strong. He generally follows orders but can also talk back to commanding officer. He does not shy away from a fight. He has above average intelligence.  He is skilled as a marksman. He was raised in the UP, so is fond of hunting. He is single and corresponds with his family infrequently.

Do you have a picture of Joe Swayar? Could you predict how he might perform using the Army App? Does he represent all soldiers?

Can we generate another persona, perhaps a soldier not so rash?

Company B Communication Specialist

Private Rod Smith

Age: 23

Height: 5′ 8″

Weight: 140 lbs

Left handed

Ron is an agile and fast. He has been enlisted for a couple of years. He is not sure if he will make a carrier in the Army. He follows orders and never argues with commanding officer. He avoids fights. . He is skilled as mechanic and can get equipment working.  He was raised on the east coast. He is single and corresponds frequently with family. He drinks infrequently and has several friends.

Is Rod different from Joe? Can you anticipate his use of the Army App? Is it different from Joe? Note after writing Rod’s persona, we get ideas of how to improve Joe’s persona.

Could we write a third persona?

These short personas are fun to write and do not take much time. In industry, the team may do market research to describe a more detail person. For example, designer of the Army App would interview many soldiers and commanders to get good description of personas.

A good resource about personas with example is at:

In fact, the entire website is good for a brief introduction to a lot of field in UX.

Other Techniques to Learn about Users

  • Surveying Users is using questionnaires to survey a population. Requires defining the population, finding a lists of the population, writing the questionnaire, distributing the questionnaires, receive the responds, cleaning the data and analyzing the responses. Typically, it requires 400 or more randomly sampled responds.
  • Diaries can be time or event based entries. Entries can be answers to questions, either open-ended or closed-ended questions. You must find the users, and the number of users that keep the diaries will be small.
  • Interviewing and Focus groups are meeting with know or potential users. Requires designing the questions, finding the users, conducting the interview, collate the responds and analyzing.
  • Ethnographic Research  is observing know or potential users at the task. We could use an ethnographic approach in our citizen science project by joining them on a field trip.
  • Literature Research is an academic approach of reading others’ research on the users.
  • User testing is an academic approach of testing participants on a particular task in the laboratory. This approach discovers very detail information about a small aspect of the users. A large group of users can be tested and the results average to describe hypothetical typical user.