Personas – Communication or Process?

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Personas is viewed as a method for communicating user data to all members of the design team and customers, but maybe it should rather be viewed as a process method that ensures a user centered design process.
Personas are fictitious descriptions of users based on field data. Personas encourage a user-centered design process. When design solutions are discussed the persona is inserted into various scenarios that form the point of departure for design decisions. The design of the personas method varies. Cooper, with the introduction of the goal-directed method, emphasizes detailed user descriptions (precision), while Pruitt and Grudin[12] focus on accuracy through relations to field data. The precise persona approach sees the advantages of the method as its ability to focus design and its ability to end discussions in its capacity of being a communication tool, [1], [2], [3]. The accurate approach [4], [11], [10] focuses on a strict relationship between data and what is communicated in the personas description. Focus areas in the descriptions are: computer skills, market size and influence, activities a typical day or week in the user’s life, the persona’s fears and aspirations. Added are strategic and tactical reflections. Both view the method as a communication tool for data.


The question of seeing a method as a communication tool implies a communication model of sender, message, media, and receiver [6]. In the personas method this can be seen in the attitude towards how the personas are created and communicated; someone translates the data into personas descriptions that are communicated to the design team via campaigns, e.g. slideshows, posters, emails, mugs [12] or as [11] puts it: “information about your complete personas is sent off into your organization”. This sender receiver model obscures one of the biggest challenges in the personas methods: how to get buy-in for using the method from the whole organization. Rather than seeing the methods as a communication tool, it could be viewed as a process tool – a movement, or a designed sequence of changes, towards a user centered design involving all parties in the design process.


From a practical and a research perspective I propose a model that views the personas method as a process. In the following I will go through the model from a process perspective.

3.1 Step 1: Finding the Users

The initial step is to get hold of as much knowledge of the users as possible. The data can originate from several sources: interviews, observations, second hand information, questionnaires, reports, cultural probes etc.

3.2 Step 2: Building a Hypothesis

Working with the personas method is focusing on users in a certain project context or domain and building a hypothesis of how the context might influence what constitutes a persona and the number of personas.

This is illustrated in the following example. A project for a national Danish authority concerning redesign of a web portal for business reports to different governmental authorities. The national authority had a tradition for dividing Danish businesses into categories of size and trades. When using the personas method this division of businesses did not make sense. The domain is not business size or trade, but reporting. What mattered is how big the company is – big companies have dedicated staff to do the reporting, small companies have staff where reporting is a minor part of their job. Another factor is whether the person who reports is employed within the company or is a consultant [9].

3.3 Step 3: Verification

In the step ‘Verification’ the focus is on finding data that supports the initial patterns and at the same time supports the personas descriptions and the scenario writing e.g. what are the users values? What are their attitudes towards the system/site? The personas method is fundamentally a qualitative method and as such it requires several phases of looking at the result from both a partial and total perspective. In ‘Verification’ the partial result is tested to see if it obtains meaning in comparison with the overall result [5]. From a process perspective this test can be facilitated by involved members of the design project.

3.4 Step 4: Finding Patterns

Finding patterns is a categorization of the data into meaningful patterns that can support the personas descriptions. From a process perspective it is of importance to show the categorization to other team members, project partners etc.

In the above mentioned case we conducted a workshop with project partners and report suppliers in order to get their approval of the findings and patterns. This gave them not only an understanding of the underlying data and their comments to the interpretations, but provided also their support of the method.

3.5 Step 5: Constructing Personas

This step is not only a description of users, but includes an awareness of the final goal of the method; to create design solutions that takes the needs of the persona as starting point [7]. The fifth step might enhance buy-in. Pruitt and Adlin [11] address a “you” – the author of personas descriptions – in their book, when writing about this step. The personas method should rather be perceived as a collective process where everybody should understand how the descriptions came about and what they can be used for. If different team members are allowed to be part of the writing process they feel ownership of the personas. Afterwards the descriptions can be rewritten by a single person to ensure homogeneity in writing and presentation.

3.6 Step 6: Defining Situations

This step is a preparation for the scenarios. Here the situations in which the persona will use the system/site are described. Again it is a step where inclusion of partners can prove valuable for the process of adapting the method.

3.7 Step 7: Validation and Buy-in

To ensure that all participants agree on the descriptions and the situations two strategies can be followed. 1: ask everybody their opinion. 2: let them participate in the process. Having a process view helps create sessions where as many stakeholders as possible can be involved in the developing the personas and in using them for design.

3.8 Step 8: Dissemination of Knowledge

If the personas are not disseminated to participants they are not worth anything. It is not only the personas that needs to be distributes to everybody, but also the data – the foundation document [11], [4].

3.9 Step 9: Creating Scenarios

The personas method proves valuable when a persona enters a scenario. Teaching designers to think in persona-focused scenarios is part of the process. If they are not taught, the method might not be used by the individuals during the design phase where personas advocates are long gone.

3.10 Step 10: Ongoing Development

Lastly information on the personas should be updated [8]. It is crucial that not everybody is able to change the information, but knows whom to contact. I recommend having a personas ambassador who looks into the descriptions and who project participants can contact if they find irregularities in the descriptions. It is also the ambassador’s duty to let the personas die when they have outlived their purpose [11].


This project model is a proposal. The insistence on a process view in the method seems to clear some of the problems reported in communicating the method to designers [8]. To refine the process and to test it further studies are needed.


[1] Cooper, A. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. SAMS, Indianapolis, 1999.

[2] Goodwin, K. Perfecting your Personas., 2001.

[3] Goodwin, K., Getting from Research to Personas., 2002.

[4] Grudin, J. and J. Pruitt. Personas, Participatory Design and Product Development. In PDA 2002, Malmoe, 2002.

[5] Kvale, S. InterView. Hans Reitzel, København, 1997.

[6] McQuail, D. Audience Analysis. Sage, London, 1997.

[7] Nielsen, L. Engaging Personas and Narrative Scenarios, PhD Series. Samfundslitteratur, Copenhagen, 2004.

[8] Nielsen, L. Then the picture comes in your mind of what you have seen on TV. In The 5th DHCIR Symposium, Copenhagen, 2005.

[9] Nielsen, L., E. Landbo, and A. Vorre Hansen. Personas for – beskrivelser af personas, orbitter og deres tilknyttede data. Snitker & Co, 2007.

[10] Olsen, G., Making Personas More Powerful., 2004.

[11] Pruitt, J. and T. Adlin. The Persona Lifecycle. The Morgan Kaufmann Series in Interactive Technologies. San Francisco, 2006.

[12] Pruitt, J. and J. Grudin, Personas: Practice and Theory., 2003.

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