Building your personas on solid foundations

by Foolproof

In my earlier blog post, Beware persona templates, I described the importance of creating foundation documents for your personas before rushing to create final presentation documents.

This post describes what you should put into your persona foundation documents.

I tend to think about foundation documents in terms of these major building blocks.

Activities and goals

The core of any persona is what they are doing and why they are doing it. I always work hardest on describing each persona's activities and goals and highlighting aspects of their behaviour and motivation that makes them different from the other personas.

For example, your research has found that working parents with young families and little spare time buy most of their groceries online when their children are in bed, and have them delivered at a convenient time. But they buy other household items and some groceries at a store on their way home from work. When they visit the store they are in a hurry and make mistakes that they can ill-afford.

Why do they do that? Well they have to fit their shopping around their shift-patterns and childcare. For groceries they can choose a convenient delivery date and time slot, but for other goods they can only get an estimated delivery date. Whoever arrives home first will sometimes send text messages to their partner asking them to pick up additional items on the way home. But the details get confused and they end up buying the wrong size, type or amount of an item.


One of the strengths of personas is their ability to create empathy and recognition in the people who will use them. Therefore, it pays off to take care with the name, age, photo, family and work circumstances, and personal aspects of your personas.

Our example working-parent becomes 32 year-old Sally. She is married to Alex and they have 3 children aged 2, 5 and 7. In her photo Sally is sitting at her kitchen table wearing a uniform with a name badge. When she works late shifts Alex records her favourite soaps but Sally is often tired and falls asleep while she watches them.


Whether you call it their journey, scenario or story, a good narrative is a wonderfully concise and engaging way to express the design challenges and opportunities that a persona represents. At this stage the stories can be text, simple sketches or a mixture of both.

In our example, as Sally leaves work she has a text from Alex. They need a new school jumper to replace a torn one, new light bulbs for the kitchen, and package lunch stuff for a school trip they had forgotten about. When she gets to the store she tries to call Alex but the phone is busy, so she rushes round to buy the items they need. The items are spread all round the store so it takes much longer than she thought. When she gets home Sally makes the packed lunch while Alex replaces the light bulbs. The bulbs are the wrong size for the kitchen light fittings.

And stories are also a great way to contrast how things are now, how things will be when a new product or service is available, and how to make that transition.


To have any value, personas must provide insights that will drive the design. In particular, it must be clear how your personas constrain possible design solutions. So pay attention to the design challenges each persona presents.

In our example, Sally and Alex can afford only basic mobile phones and have access to the internet only at home on a creaky second-hand laptop. Neither can take a voice phone call at work and will often take a long time to respond to a text message. And when they get in from work and are bathing the children or reading them stories they may not answer the phone or notice a text.

From this we see that solutions based on mobile apps won't work for them and they cannot afford any new product or service that adds to their costs.


When youpresent your personas, you will want to make them easily 'glanceable' so that your audience can quickly grasp their most important aspects and understand the differences between them. In presentation documents, large analogue scales and keyword groups are a great way to summarise a persona's situation, motivation and behaviour. You should document these attributes in each persona’s foundation document.

In our example, important attributes for our personas may be amount of free time, frequency of shopping, amount of pre-planning, mobile internet access, etc.


As I described in my previous post, from these solid and reusable foundations you can quickly create a range of presentation documents in a variety of formats.

Further Reading

Read Indi Young's Mental Models and Don Norman on Activity Centred Design for more about the importance of behaviour over demographics in personas. Read Pruitt & Aldin's The Persona Lifecycle for the importance of empathy and recognition. Read Giles Colborne' Simple and Usable and Quesenbery & Brooks' Storytelling for User Experience for more on creating and using stories.


There are any number of ways to improve Sally's shopping experience. How would you help make her life easier?

Author: John Waterworth

What do you think?