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Here´s a quick primer on the key factors you need to consider when creating personas.

Even though personas are commonly used in user-centered design, marketing, product development and sales, their effectiveness is sometimes questioned, especially when speaking about their practical use. The Microsoft study conducted couple of years ago highlighted roadblocks to make user personas a useful tool:

  • Personas are derived from imaginary ideas of co-workers, rather than from research on actual userbase
  • Once created, personas are easily forgotten and play a minor role in design process
  • They are used over-passionately only by one designer (or one team), instead of being a common guide for everyone

Although arguments presented in the study are strong, these are not issues you cannot deal with. In this article, we expand on this topic, and provide you with some tips that allow you to make the most of user personas.

Choose the right approach when creating personas

How do you get data needed to build actionable user personas? Start to talk with your potential clients first. There is no specific number of interviews you should conduct – it depends on diversity of your target audience. It’s good to set up a few face-to-face meetings first to get insights into their core needs, goals and objections. If possible, it would be great for this to be more of an ethnography-style session where you observe them as they work. You can ask questions like:

  • What are you responsible for in your job?
  • What activities are most important to your success?
  • Walk me through a typical day
  • Describe how you’d expect to use the product

It’s best to ask questions that revolve around patterns in attitude and behavior. The goal is to be able to collect enough information to distinguish which group a person falls into.

An interesting example of qualitative approach was given by MailChimp. When creating personas for redesigning their app, the team flew to different cities around the world and met with their clients at their workplaces. The goal was to learn who they were; what, why, and how often they sent e-mails; what kind of people they were, where they worked, and what kinds of problems they faced. By observing how users were performing everyday tasks and interviewing them, the team found out how to redesign their app. When the research was finished, they summarized the findings and created five user personas which became decision making criteria.

Think qualitatively, verify quantitatively

The landscape of user research and testing, source: Steve Mulder, “The User Is Always Right: A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas for the Web”

Qualitative research methods are not enough to capture the whole persona lifecycle. As Steve Mulder explain in his “User is always right” – observations, shadowing, interviews, focus groups are great to gain valuable insights, but they are limited to a small sample size. Quantitative research methods like surveys are better suited to uncover significant user trends that reflect what is more and what is less important to them.

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Combining qualitative and quantitative approach will make personas more impactful. Since you are backed up by hard data it’s easier to find arguments for your boss when he comes up with imaginary ideas about a user profile. Although UX debate should be constructive and impartial, it’s inevitable that at times people will disagree with you. Creating personas that are driven from real data will help you support design decisions without unnecessary struggles.

Putting theory into practice

Even in our modern and mostly digital world, the best tool business owners, marketers and researchers have for collecting information about their targets – potential and current customers – is still the good old survey. When preparing it, remember to keep it short and actionable – ask only what’s relevant to your business. What questions to ask in a persona survey? Survey questions vary according to what type of information they are trying to collect, and how this information will apply to the goals of the survey. There are two basic types of questions:

  • Open-ended – this type of question allows participants to respond in any way they choose
  • Closed-ended – require participants to choose from a limited number of predetermined responses

When creating personas, use primarily open-ended questions. You will be taken into the natural language and worlds of your participants and allow them to answer spontaneously. Here we’ve prepared a list of sample survey questions that help you create personas:

General questions

  • What is your professional background?
  • Why and how did you become a/an…
  • How do you get information about your industry and profession?

Domain knowledge

  • What skills are required to do your job?
  • How you use your current setup to do…
  • What associations do you belong to?

Goals & Motivations

  • What are you responsible for in your job?
  • What activities are most important to your success?
  • How do you define success in your job?
  • What are the most enjoyable parts of your job?
  • Are there any external or internal motivations to do a good job?

Pain Points

  • What are the biggest challenges facing you in your current job?
  • What are the most annoying aspects of your job?
  • What issues keep you up at night?


  • Are you somehow dissatisfied with our product? What do you like least?
  • If you could change one thing about our product what would it be and why?
  • Is there anything that you wish our product allowed you to do that it doesn’t allow now.

Some of the answers may inspire you to make further research, so add a field for additional contact information. You’ll be able to get in touch with particular respondent and gather more insights into his needs and objections.

Once your survey is prepared, it’s time to send it. Various tools offers much flexibility in finding and reaching your respondents and each survey can be distributed using multiple methods. Here are some of them:

  • Insert a pop-up window on your website
  • Send out survey via email
  • Use research panel
  • Distribute via social media channels, web forums, online discussion groups

Find repeatable patterns

If you spoke with a large number of clients and gained a lot of data, you may ask yourself: “How should I communicate all of those different individuals’ stories?” The possible solution is to find similarities in personal goals and characteristic and determine a few groups of people, that:

  • Explain differences you’ve observed among users
  • Are different from one another
  • Cover all users

For instance, for a car auction website, you can create groups based on overall goals: buy a new car, buy used car and sell a car. At this point you take your company’s goals into account and throw away pieces of information that are irrelevant to your business. Very specific demographic attributes are useless, because they don’t help us imagine experience reality as our users do. In many cases you’re not so interested in your customers’ age, whereas years of their work experience suggest what features they need.

  • Once your groups are created, each persona should reflect each of these groups. There are two ways you can do that:

    Choose only one person from that group
  • Take all attributes from that group and average the results

No matter which way you choose, keep in mind that personas need to have a human face, be likelife, have complex but natural psychological background, and probable, if not real, story. A persona enables you to design something that is for someone and not everyone

Keep entire team on track

When persona is hidden, it’s not a common guide and can’t be used throughout the project lifecycle. Make your co-workers familiar with personas, as you don’t create personas just for yourself, but for entire company:

  • Set up a meeting and introduce personas to other teams for the first time
  • Put a poster in a shared space
  • Prepare a one-pager and send it via e-mail

Start to refer to personas during the meetings: “What would Margaret do? How would she behave? What would bring value to her?”. Address those issues to personas. Ask yourself what would make them say “yes” what “no” and which of your decisions is likely to have the most positive outcomes.

All in all

  1. Creating personas is an ongoing process in which ideas are tested and updated time and again. We can break this into five smaller steps:

    Identify your users – ask your colleagues what they know about them, set up a few meetings with your clients
  2. Apply quantitative methods, gather more data and verify your assumptions
  3. Analyze users’ characteristics and determine few groups of people that are different from one another
  4. Choose one person from every group and prepare user personas
  5. Share personas with your colleagues

However, the only appropriate path for everyone simply doesn’t exist, as business objectives are different from one project to another.

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Torsten Tromm

About the author

Torsten is CEO and founder of Userpeek. He is an old stager in the online business with 20 years of experience as an online marketer, conversion rate optimizer and UX strategist.

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