User Experience

7 min read

User persona misconceptions (and how to create data-driven user personas)

User personas are a powerful UX design tool when used correctly. Overcome user persona misconceptions and bias by creating data-driven personas.

Wooden blocks with letters forming the word "persona".

Written by

Tasmin Lofthouse working from a cafe

Tasmin Lofthouse

Published on

30 November, 2022

Updated on

23 January, 2023

I’m going to put it out there… user personas get a bad rep for all the wrong reasons.

If you don’t think user personas are worthwhile using, you’re probably using them wrong.

User personas can be a powerful cornerstone of your sales, marketing and UX trifecta. And I’m going to show you exactly how you can move past the user persona misconceptions and turn them into your UX secret power.

User persona misconceptions

Most user personas share a detailed backstory for the fictitious individual. We’ll hear about their age, job, gender, where they live and how they spend their spare time. If we’re lucky, the user persona will touch on their desires, struggles and pain points.

But honestly… So what?

Personas based on demographics and personal interests don’t tell us how we can craft a better user experience for this person.

In the early days of user segmentation, user personas usually looked like this.

But we’ve come a long way since then. We have so much data at our fingertips. So much evidence-backed information about user behaviour. And so, our user personas have grown more sophisticated.

Before diving into the ins and outs of a sophisticated and effective user persona, let’s first explore some common user persona myths and misconceptions.

Stop giving your user persona’s personalities — they’re not Sims characters

Darren the developer from Devon, Maria the Mum of twins, Aaron the air hockey-loving accountant — these roll-off-the-tongue alliterative user personas probably aren’t doing your user experience any favours.

Giving your user persona a personality can do your UX strategy more harm than good.

When we build user personas, we are creating an overarching representation of a larger group of people. The second you give your user persona a fictitious backstory with trivial personality traits, you exclude key members of your target audience.

The same goes for photos.

Much like job resumes, user personas don’t need photos.

Sure, it’s a great way to put a face to a name. But this visual portrayal of your audience could exclude real users — just because they don’t look exactly like Sandra the middle-aged white female on your user persona template.

This over-personalisation of user personas creates bias. When this happens, it creates a bias blind spot. You don’t mean to exclude people based on their age, gender, or race. Yet, unconsciously, you’ll do exactly that.

Personas shouldn’t be based on guesswork or wishful thinking

Many people build personas based on what they want their customers to look like. They become blindsided by the idealistic view of their dream customer or client.

In reality, your actual customers might be a million miles away from the dream customer you hold in your mind’s eye.

Basing user personas on guesswork can lead to targeting the wrong audience. And if you’re targeting the wrong audience, you’re not going to get the results you were hoping for.

Basing user personas on guesswork means you might end up creating a site or app for someone who doesn’t really exist. You design something for who you think your users are, not who they actually are.

The other issue with guesswork is that you could end up focusing on an “egocentric” target audience. Rather than creating a site for your users, you create a site based on your own preferences.

However, you are not your target customer. User personas based on yourself will not align with the needs of your target audience.

Your user persona says nothing about your product/service

A user persona might tell you someone’s favourite meal is spaghetti bolognese or that they love playing football on Sundays but that has nothing to do with your product or service.

Unless you built a football coaching app, sell athletic gear, or your brand is somehow aligned with the football niche, knowing that a hypothetical user plays football is useless.

Yet, many user personas will focus so heavily on personal characteristics that they forget to link the persona back to their brand.

The whole purpose of a user persona is to better understand your users so that you can better sell your products and services. That’s it. So your user persona should relate to your business — talk about their goals, pain points and challenges in relation to what you offer.

Only mention demographic and environmental details if they will impact how those users engage with your brand.

A user persona is a technical document, so get technical!

Creating data-driven user personas

Now we know what a user persona shouldn’t look like — how do you create effective user personas?

Instead of creating hypothetical user personas based on nothing but hopes and dreams, we need to create data-driven user personas.

Data will be your best friend. From speaking to people to analysing quantitative data and observing behaviour, data is the secret to creating meaningful user personas.

Shift the focus of your user persona to goals, needs and challenges (in relation to your product/service, of course) and you’ll hit the sweet spot for creating data-driven user personas that optimise UX.

Speak to your users before building personas

User research should be the foundation of any user persona exercise.

Personas inform site functionality, uncover gaps in UX, and highlight new opportunities to better connect with your users. So, it makes sense to develop personas led by user research.

User research comes in many shapes and forms. Interviews, surveys, focus groups, reviews, tests, use cases, task analysis, usability scales… you get the idea.

The best way to conduct user research is to speak to your users. Yes, it really is that simple.

Use a combination of surveys and interviews to get closer to your users. When speaking with users, you want to uncover:

  • Their role and responsibilities at work — if this is relevant to your business

  • Who your users are and why they are using your products/services

  • What their goals, needs and challenges are in relation to your niche or product/service

  • What pain points they experience in relation to your niche or product/service

  • Their main priorities in relation to your niche or product/service

  • Their biggest frustrations when using your (or similar) products/services

  • What would stop them from buying or using your product/service

  • Their thoughts on similar products/services they have used

The questions you ask should link back to your product — how they use them, why they use them and what they need from them.

Ask a mix of demographic questions alongside problem, solution and task-focused questions and product-focused questions. You could ask people specifically about their experience with your products or services, or you could use these questions to explore the user journey and their needs and challenges in the lead-up to purchase.

"Your customers can tell you the things that are broken and how they want to be made happy. Listen to them. Make them happy. But don't rely on them to create the future road map for your product or service. That's your job." - Mark Cuban

Don’t just rely on conversations with your users. Chances are they may be biased. Users may hold back on their true opinion and, ultimately, they don’t always act the way they say they do.

Speak to your internal teams too — don’t build in silos, make sure it’s a collaborative effort where you can gain insights from other teams. Customer-facing teams like sales reps, account managers, and customer support agents are likely sitting on a goldmine of insightful nuggets about your users. These people speak to your customers on a daily basis. They know all about the challenges your users are facing in real time.

Observe user behaviour

To combat the potential bias of just speaking to users, pair user interviews and surveys with observation.

Watch how users interact with your site. Task analysis lets you see what steps users take on their journey from A to B meanwhile usability tests might uncover problems users face when using your site.

Here’s the thing: user personas are not set in stone. They are fluid. Users may change overtime, or from product to product. You also may have multiple personas (and that’s okay!).

Create overarching personas but don’t forget to observe individual user behaviour.

Observing user behaviour lets you pick up on intricacies and habitual patterns that users may not even notice about themselves. You see exactly how they engage with your site or app. From here, you can optimise the user journey and UX design to make it easier for users to complete their intended goal.

User tools like HotJar to observe onsite behaviour with site recordings and heatmaps or invite users to sessions where you can observe how they interact with certain elements.

Focus on user goals, needs and challenges

Forget user personalities, interests and hobbies. When digging deep into user personas, look at their goals, needs and challenges in relation to your product/service.

Use the jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) framework to understand the mental processes users go through on their customer journey. The JTBD framework is based on the idea that people buy products or services to get “jobs” done. Jobs, in this scenario, can represent tasks, goals, needs, and challenges.

Using the JTBD framework, you’ll better understand the overarching goals, needs and challenges of your users. Many product designers use jobs-to-be-done over user personas but I recommend combining the two. Use JTBD to strengthen your user personas.

And remember, different users have different goals, needs and challenges. So, you’ll likely have multiple personas depending on the different users you serve.

End-users want a product they can use to easily complete intended tasks.

Buyers want a product that will fulfil their needs at a suitable price point.

IT teams want a product that seamlessly integrates with their existing technology and is secure and easy to maintain.

Executive teams want products that boost profits, support overarching business goals and provide a competitive advantage.

And so on and so forth.

Uncovering the goals, needs and challenges of your various users will help you design better user experiences at every stage of their journey.

Good vs bad user persona examples

To illustrate everything I’ve shared in this post, I wanted to draw attention to what a good versus bad user persona looks like using Skyward as an example.

This is a bad user persona built on myths and misconceptions

Information about demographics, personality, challenge and goals of a developer. In the above example, the user persona tells us a lot about the user from a personal perspective. While this might be helpful for some companies, it isn’t relevant for us. Knowing the users hobbies, interests and personality traits won’t necessarily help us create a better experience for them.

This user persona does touch on the users goals and challenges. However, these sections are fairly vague making it hard for us to see how this ties into our services. These goals and challenges provide little information to help us improve the user journey or understand what content to prioritise for this user.

This is a good user persona built on data

List of needs, goals and challenges from a senior frontend developer. This user persona template is a much better example of what a good user persona might look like. To create this user persona, we analysed past customer data and projects. We also spoke with our internal team to better understand the user needs, goals and challenges, based on our current and past clients.

We stripped out any personal information and waved goodbye to naming our user and putting a face to them. This allows us to maintain attention on the details that matter.

With that said, some companies, such as eCommerce brands, might benefit from including personal information. If you’re an eCommerce brand selling born clothing and products knowing which of your users are parents and what their family dynamics look like can be helpful for targeting these users and improving their journey. A parent of three young children, for example, may be easily distracted during the customer journey so your team should focus on creating designs that prioritise speed and ease.

As for our needs, goals, and challenges, we wrote these based on customer data and made sure they were detailed enough that anyone in our team could understand our users priorities and pain-points. We also made sure these tie into the services we offer and the ways we can help these users.

Remember, user personas shouldn’t follow a set template. Rather, the visual representation should be adjusted to suit your users and your business. User personas are situational so what works for one company may not work for another, and visa-versa. Include the details that matter to your company and present it in a way that is easy to understand.

Create data-driven user personas if you really want to ramp up your UX

Understanding your users is a crucial part of UX design. Done properly, user personas make design decisions less complicated. You can get a clear understanding of your users’ exact needs, goals and challenges.

Plus, the benefits of user personas extend far beyond UX design. Personas can also be used to improve sales, marketing and customer support — amongst other avenues of your business.

Data-driven user personas guide the design process and help you keep real users at the forefront of every decision. Remember though — they need to be based on data and they need to relate to your product/services. Otherwise, they might do more harm than good.

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