Beware persona templates

by Foolproof

Two of my recent projects have been larger strategic persona developments, and like the proverbial anteater, I seem to have become 'the persona guy' here at Harella House. But that's fine with me and I've had some great discussions about the best ways to create, present and use personas.

One of the most interesting questions has been whether we should have a standard persona template. I firmly believe that we shouldn't and that trying to use one would be harmful.

The problems with persona templates

Firstly, what's important to say about our personas and the best way to communicate them varies too much from project to project. Secondly, a template can encourage us to rush straight from the research data into the final presentation document by just filling in the required sections.

But where does that leave a newbie trying to create their first personas?

Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to help you create personas with great content and to present them in a way that will make a real impact.

1. Start with the skeleton

Whatever research approach you've used, and whether you're working alone or in a workshop, there will always be a point where some strong behavioural clusters emerge from the data. If you can give each of these clusters a basic character (name, age, gender, role, goals and situation), and that character rings true, then you have a good persona 'skeleton'.

2. Build the foundation

For each of these skeletons you should create a 'foundation' document that holds all the data for the persona. When you start this document, don't worry too much about how the document is structured or how it looks. Just make sure that everything you include is based in your data and says something important about the persona.

In my foundation documents I concentrate on:

  • activities — what the persona is doing
  • goals — why they are doing it
  • character — to create recognition and empathy in the audience
  • stories — concrete illustrations of the persona acting to achieve their goals
  • challenges — specific design challenges that the persona represents
  • attributes — differentiating characteristics of the persona.

3. Speak to your audience

Once you have the foundation for each persona you can think more clearly about how best to present them. Which elements of the content are most important? What tone of voice and presentation style will have the most impact? And which presentation format will work best within the client organisation's culture.

As an example, let's say you work in an organisation that is all about customer service and building relationships. You have lots of small face-to-face meetings and you have motivational posters on your walls.

  • Present your personas in A3 documents that people can discuss over a meeting room table and A0 posters that people will see around them every day
  • Use a conversational tone of voice and a friendly visual style that fits with your company’s branding guidelines
  • Focus on your personas' character, motivation and story over more abstract descriptions of activities and characteristics
  • Use quotes and biographical details to make your persona more engaging.

Alternatively, let's say your client’s organisation is very focussed on performance metrics and objectives, facts and numbers. Their staff are spread across several offices, many people hot desk and everyone speaks in PowerPoint.

  • Give your client the foundation document and two slide decks: a shorter deck they can use to introduce the personas and a longer slide deck they can use to give more detail on each persona
  • Use a factual and authoritative tone of voice
  • Focus on key attributes and design challenges
  • Represent attributes with scales and make clear statements in bullet points
  • Keep stories short and clearly tie story elements to design challenges.


If you’ve been trying to squeeze your personas into a generic template, throw off that straightjacket. Collect and organise your content in foundation documents and then let the personas speak to your audience through targeted presentation documents.

Further reading

For more on persona skeletons and persona foundation documents I can strongly recommend The Persona Lifecycle by John Pruitt & Tamara Adlin.

Author: John Waterworth

What do you think?