Building apps based on assumptions about your users can only lead to problems down the line. If you want to build a solution that’s optimized and personalized for the ideal user, then you need to connect with them on a deeper level. And building out user persona(s) is the way to accomplish that.
Even if you're not a UX designer, it's really useful to have a user persona to design your products and experiences for.
Why is that? Well, rather than design strictly based on the brand’s goals or the assumptions they’ve made about their audience, you use data to turn your ideal user into a human you can relate to. This, in turn, enables designers, copywriters, marketers, and other creators to better shape every step of the journey, every interaction, and every feature to the user’s satisfaction.
Empathy is an incredibly powerful tool in design and marketing. But it’s not easy to come by if you don’t really know who you’re serving.
That’s why, today, we’re going to take a look at the process you’ll use to create your relatable user personas.
It doesn’t matter what you’re building—a website targeting brides-to-be, a banking mobile app, or a web app to track and manage sales pipelines. If you don’t know the person you’re building it for, your solution is likely to come out flawed.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to show you how to flesh out a user persona for an accounting app built for self-employed creatives:
Your goal is to create a persona that accurately reflects how self-employed creatives actually feel, think, and react. To do this, you need real data from real people.
There are a couple of methods you can use for this:
If you have a list of qualified leads or existing customers, you can schedule one-on-one interviews with each of them. Now, what you ask them will depend on where the users came from.
If you have an existing product that you’re looking to improve, you can tap into your existing user base to create or refine your user personas and then fix your product.
You’d ask them questions like:
When did you become self-employed?
What is your profession?
What’s been your greatest struggle when it comes to managing your finances?
How long have you been using Accounting App for?
Why did you sign up for it in the first place?
Which three features do you use the most?
Is there a feature you really need but that doesn’t currently exist in the app?
If you haven’t built your product yet, a minimum viable product (MVP) would provide you with an opportunity to collect leads interested in the app, give them a chance to experiment with the beta, and then interview them after some time. Questions asked would be similar to the ones you’d ask existing customers.
NNG has some useful tips on how to conduct user interviews and get the kinds of natural and honest responses you need from them.
If you don’t have a live product or working beta for users to provide input on, that’s okay. You can send out surveys to learn more about prospective users and their motivations. Heck, you might even decide that you want to go the survey route regardless, especially if you have hundreds of users clamoring to talk to you.
This would be the best option to get the greatest sample size.
To identify prospective users, you can either work with an existing set of leads or you could harness the power of social media ads and call for answers to your survey. The goal would be to drive them to a landing page that briefly explains that you’re conducting a confidential survey and want their help.
You’ll then ask them pre-filled and open-ended questions related to:
Who they are
What their goal is
What roadblocks they’ve encountered to achieving that goal
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to let them know at the very end of the survey what you’re planning to build and then ask them to provide their email address (optionally, of course) if they want to be the first to hear about the product. When user input is used early on to inform the direction of a product, it’s much easier to get their buy-in and support later on.
All data—no matter how it’s collected—needs to be digitally documented.
When it comes to conducting interviews, you want to be present, not with your eyes glued to a computer screen. So, you’ll need to record your session with an audio recorder or through your video conferencing tool (depending on where the interview takes place).
Once the interviews are transcribed, you can use a tool like Reframer or User Interviews to help you analyze the results and identify themes.
If you’re sending out surveys to users, make sure you use a tool to automate the process. This way, you can get as much input as possible and then process it to identify trends and suss out the persona’s identity. This is especially helpful when asking open-ended questions, so you can more easily identify commonly used words as well as the overall sentiment.
I’d recommend one of these solutions built specifically for creating and analyzing user surveys:
GSuite’s Google Forms tool
While these tools will take some of the burden off of you to collect and analyze results, it’s still important to understand what you’re looking for and what you need to do with it.
So, the goal in this stage is to identify the following:
As you go along, you’re going to start noticing patterns. These patterns will shape the identity of your user persona.
Just be aware that you may end up with more than one persona in the end—and that’s okay. That just means you’ll have to design your marketing strategy and eventually the product to suit different user sets.
At this point, you have all the data you need to create your user persona. Rather than keep it locked away within your analyzer tool, what you need to do is create a shareable user persona card. This way, every person on your team will know exactly who they’re creating for.
A user persona should include the following information:
How you design and format the card is up to you. Just make sure it’s easy to read and written in a way that anyone can understand and relate to the person and their problems.
Here’s an example of one I created for our made-up accounting app and target user:
Basically, this card needs to give your persona a personality and voice. This is what will enable you and your team to effectively tackle their problem.
Note: If you end up with multiple user personas, not only will you have to create cards for each in this step, but you’ll have to prioritize them. There’s no way to build a singular product or marketing campaign to cater to every persona, so the priorities will help you figure out the different pathways and approaches needed to cater to each.
Now that you’ve created personas to represent your user base, it’s time for you to do some role-playing with them.
The point of this exercise is to take your user persona and run them through various scenarios with your app. But don’t just act out what they do inside the app. It’s also good to imagine how they’d engage with your sales and marketing efforts.
Specifically, you should have scenarios for all your key interaction milestones. For instance:
Initial discovery (e.g. Facebook ads, cold emails, Google search results, app store listing)
Signup and onboarding (through the landing page or in-app)
Navigation, orientation, and gesture manipulation
Primary task execution and completion
Settings configuration and app personalization
This means you’ll need to have working prototypes available for testing.
For example, you might run a couple versions of promotional Facebook ads by the person playing the role of “Jane Smith”:
In one of them, there’s a stock photo of a woman pulling at her hair.
The headline reads: “Money Got You Down?”.
The message says, “You thought going into business for yourself meant more freedom. But the uncertainty of your income certainly doesn’t feel free, does it?”
Knowing what they know about Jane, the role-player probably won’t have a positive reaction to this first ad. While the message touches on the core of her pain and hints at a solution, it’s too vague and cheesy for someone like Jane.
In another mockup, the headline reads: “Make Smarter Money Moves”.
There’s a 30-second video testimonial of a female client talking about how stressful it was to realize she had to manage her finances on her own as a solopreneur, and how the Accounting App saved her.
The role-player would more positively respond to this ad as it’s more genuine, feels more personal, and keeps it positive rather than dwelling on the pain the persona currently feels.
While developing user personas in and of itself is a useful exercise, you have to do more with them than just digest the info and build. As you can see in the example above, by dropping your user persona into various scenarios, you can anticipate how they’ll react before the app is ever in their hands and build/update it accordingly.
Running your user personas through interaction scenarios is going to be really useful while your app is still in development. But don’t stop there.
Once your app goes live, your user persona should be brought back in any time you want to make a change to the app or to execute a new campaign. It’s the only way to ensure that you continue to design personalized experiences for your target users.
And don’t forget to update your user persona.
Just as your app will evolve over time, so too will your user. So, make sure you schedule time to revisit your user personas a couple times a year. You can use data you’ve gathered from your app users as well as invite existing customers to take surveys or do an interview to help optimize their experience even further. If they’re a fan of what you’ve done for them so far, they’ll be happy to contribute!
A former project manager and web design agency manager, Suzanne Scacca now writes about the changing landscape of design, development, and software.
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