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The Sorting Hat of UX - what are user personas and how to create them

Paulina Maślona
January 24, 2023

If you're a millennial like me, you probably remember all of the crucial scenes from Harry Potter - whether you like it or not, the truth is that seeing them and hearing about them was just part of our lives. One of them always comes to mind - the scene with the Sorting Hart.

Just to refresh your memory (or explain to you what it’s about if you’ve lived under a rock): young wizards come to the school called Hogwarts, some teacher puts an old-but-very-magical hat on their heads and the hat itself decides which out of the four different houses they should belong to.

As a UX researcher, it’s almost painful to watch. It’s just too easy. I mean, can you imagine a tool like that? In just a few seconds you know all your participant’s fears and pain -points, goals and dreams! No need for creating elaborate scripts, hours of interviews and analyzing notes -  you'd simply know what they need and what product (or, in this case, which house) will be a perfect fit.

Instead of a Sorting Hat, we have our slow brains and an array of techniques we hope can guide us through. One of them is creating user personas.

What are user personas?

User personas are fictional archetypes. They are supposed to represent your users/target group but they’re not anyone specific. Similarly to a Sorting Hat they allow you to group various people with their different experiences into fewer categories (which are much easier to work with).

You should be able to take a look at the persona and understand it symbolizes an important segment of your target group. They're not real people, but they seem to like it and will remind you of real needs you've witnessed in your research.

Historically, one of the primary reasons to use personas in research was to avoid generalizations and one-size-fits-all solutions. Alan Cooper, who actually came up with the idea for this tool, in his book The Inmates are Running the Asylum, talks about the “elastic user” reference:

Developing for the elastic user gives the developer license to code as he pleases while giving lip-service to the user. Real users are not elastic.

What he meant by this is that developers were taking too much liberty in deciding who the users are and what they actually want and changed their idea on a whim - without much basis in reality. Thanks to personas they could have a clear picture of who they’re really designing for.

Why do I even need them?

Just as Cooper rightly observed - it is extremely difficult to make correct decisions about any product or service without understanding its target audience. And carrying out research is often not enough if we can’t look past the raw data.

Personas, which are represented by names, photos, and detailed descriptions, are a powerful tool for visualizing and remembering different segments of our target audience and their unique characteristics. 

For example, consider a hypothetical scenario in which you are a designer working for a video streaming service. Which is easier for you to remember: a segment of the audience described as 20-30 year olds with higher university degrees and no children who tend to watch reality TV late at night, or a persona named Marco, a single 27-year-old photographer with a cat who is a big fan of watching "Love is Blind" before bedtime? The latter, with its specific and memorable details, is likely to be more effective in helping you understand and design for your target audience.

Thanks to having a mental model of their audience, with their needs, goals, and behaviors, designers can create a more targeted and personalized user experience that better meets the expectations of their users. On a larger scale, it can inform all types of decisions about product development, marketing, and customer service.

Also, and that’s especially important for us as researchers, personas can be an effective way to communicate the study results to team members, stakeholders, and clients in a clear and concise way. And they are a great base for planning future research: ensuring that you are testing with representative users and gathering data that is relevant to your target audience.

When should I create user personas?

There are many opportunities throughout the product or service development process when creating personas can be beneficial. Some of the situations when creating personas proves to be especially important include (but are not limited to):

  • starting with the obvious one - when conducting user research for a new product or service - user personas can be particularly useful when a company is developing a new product or service and has little or no existing data on its target users
  • when the product or service has many features - in cases where a product or service has a large number of features, user personas can help the team prioritize which features are most important to different types of users (this can be particularly helpful in scenarios where resources are limited and the team needs to make decisions about which features to prioritize)
  • when the team is not representative of the target audience - by creating user personas, the team can better understand and empathize with the needs and experiences of their users, even if they do not share the same characteristics or backgrounds.
  • when the team is struggling to define user needs - in some cases, the team may have a clear idea of the product or service they want to develop, but may not be sure how it will be used or what features users will value most. In these situations, user personas can help the team define the needs and goals of their users, which can inform the design and development process.

Finally, how do I do it?

Although you might sometimes find it useful to create protopersonas - personas based mostly on your assumptions about the target group - and use them as a hypothesis for your future studies on the product/service, the general idea of personas is that they are the result of in-depth research of your target group.  In the words of Cooper himself:

Personas are not something we make, they’re something we discover.

As in any research, before you start make sure you understand your goal. You might be looking for an answer for a general question or something very specific - you should know what your personas are for and what the scope of their influences should be  (to understand just how important it is to decide on the scope of your personas, I highly recommend you this article: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/persona-scope/).

You can build personas based on moderated interviews, focus groups and/or analysis of existing information - ways to get to the data about your target group can be varied, what’s important is the thorough analysis.

Generally speaking, to create personas you need to look for patterns and trends in the data you've collected. Search for commonalities: similar habits, personality traits, feelings people have around certain topics or ways of doing things - however, focus on what is important in the context of the product or service (meaning: you can ignore the fact one segment of your audience struggles to wake up early in the morning unless your product is a new app set to improve our society’s poor sleeping hygiene).

Then, use the grouped data to create a few key personas that represent the different types of users who will interact with your product or service. It's important to remember that personas are not meant to be a perfect representation of every individual in a target group, but rather a composite of the most common characteristics and behaviors among the group as a whole. The standard persona should include:

  • a name
  • short bio
  • some basic characteristics such as age group, profession, race, family status
  • their skills, experience, needs, goals and motivations (remember to focus on those most relevant to your research)
  • frustrations, pain-points and challenges
  • last but not least - a photo which should show your persona’s temperament and the crucial characteristics

At this point, you can also define user scenarios: for each persona, create a few scenarios that describe how they do (if they’re current users) or might interact with the product or service.

There are many well-designed, neat-looking templates for user personas available for free (like this one, shared by Saroj Shahi in Figma), so you don’t necessarily need to come up with the layout yourself - however, remember to adapt it to your specific case.

Things to remember

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that the Sorting Hat is not a perfect metaphor for creating user personas. After all, our work as researchers is much more demanding than the old hat could ever imagine.

Both - the magical hat and us - we try to categorize and understand different groups of people based on their traits and characteristics but The Sorting Hat already had its limited personas drawn out  - you could either be a Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw or Slytherin. We, on the other hand, have to create these new categories on our own every time we embark on a new research journey. And, yes, it can be challenging and, no - we can’t really speed up this process with any magical spells.

So, just to make it a tiny bit easier, just some final things for you to remember:

  • Make us believe they’re real! 

When creating user personas, remember to make them feel like real people. The most powerful thing about this tool is that it speaks to our empathy - thanks to believable descriptions, we can not only imagine the users behind them but also start caring about their experience and needs. 

  • Go visual.

Although memorable descriptions are important, don’t overdo it. As mentioned before, focus on what’s important for your team members stakeholders to know to make informed decisions about the product. Using bars, charts, or other visual representations of personas' characteristics works quite well, as they allow for easy comparison simply by looking at them.

  • Don’t create armies.

We haven’t mentioned it before but you generally shouldn’t create more than just a few personas. Having more would be counterproductive to what you actually want to achieve - a simplified but accurate visualization of your target audience.

  • Remember - they’re not a fancy gadget, they’re a tool.

The thing that breaks a researcher’s heart is when their user personas are never really used - and it happens way too often. Make sure your team/stakeholders/clients understand the meaning of user personas and how they can help improve their product. Advocate for your personas - they’re just not a cool shiny deliverable, they’re a guide. 

  • Finally, don’t trust your personas too much.

Personas are not a final answer - they should be reviewed and if you keep working for the same service or product, you should think about regular iterations not to miss important changes in the way your target audience is structured.

Sources: 

  1. “THINK LIKE A UX RESEARCHER: How to Observe Users, Influence Design, and Shape Business Strategy” by David Travis
  2. “Just Enough Research” by Erika Hall
  3. “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity” by Alan Cooper
  4. “Just-Right Personas: How to Choose the Scope of Your Personas”, article  by Kim Salazar (available here)
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