Making personas work

by Foolproof

Given that we are currently working on a project creating personas for a large UK retailer, Kim Goodwin’s talk was one that we were really looking forward to. Kim described personas as a scalpel, a really useful tool that is hard to master but also like prescription drugs, often over prescribed which reduce their effectiveness.


The main focus of Kim’s talk was about how to make personas effective and affordable, although she stressed that effectiveness is the more important factor.

Research carried out by Forrester in 2003 found that one third of people surveyed who had used personas were unhappy with the results. Kim says the main reasons for this were personas that were not based on research with real users and inadequate research planning with stakeholders.

Furthermore, ensuring that the people who are going to be using the personas believe in them is essential if they are to be used effectively for design. Kim discussed how getting stakeholders involved in the research is often the most effective way to do this.

In fact, Kim echoed a number of the key points that we made recently in our article on Digital design agencies: Taking the U out of UCD.

Using a number of case studies, Kim picked out a number of potential problems that can arise when creating personas and discussed possible solutions. None of the pitfalls came as a surprise, as we have often had to deal with similar situations during our own projects, but her key points on how to create successful personas are always worth remembering:

  • Focus personas on a specific problem space
  • Focus on user activities, not channels or products
  • Be rigorous with your analysis
  • Personas are shorthand for research
  • Story makes it real, but behavioural detail makes it useful
  • Ultimately personas are not the point, the research is

It is also worth highlighting how important it is to understand that personas are much more about behaviour. This is the key point that differentiates them from other tools such as market segments, which is something that we always emphasise in discussion with our clients.


Although Kim stressed that affordability isn’t always a prime consideration for research projects, it is essential to get buy-in from the wider organisation.

The key factors which drive up cost include sample size and travel and Kim said that the best way to address this is to take a good look at your goal and design the research to be as cost effective as possible. This could mean taking a good look at your research segments and assessing whether they can be reduced based on similar behaviours. Alternatively this might mean undertaking a staged approach to research.

There has been some really good buzz over lunch about Kim’s talk. And it’s comforting to us that the principles of best practice in personas are already ingrained it the way we’re working.

Author: Matt Theuma

What do you think?