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Effective User Personas

Creating and using personas in design is an unsettled topic. There aren’t many good examples out there for personas that are well defined and even more importantly, used the right way.

When I review design portfolios, nearly all of them have some depiction of the personas. And yet, when I discuss the same case study with designers, you don’t hear about them any more than a mere mention. Another interesting observation is that people define personas with an unusually detailed description – the person’s age group, gender, their tech-savviness, the apps they use, along with some oddly specific user behaviours and more. This is where the challenges start to emerge. The main one being – the more detailed a persona you make, the less applicable and useful it tends to become.

The need for simplicity

A user persona is a description of a token user that you want to serve.

We take hundreds of decisions while building products. In order to keep using the persona over and over again, they need to be simple to define and even simpler to remember. If you cannot remember the persona, you won’t use it.

Think of the entire org – overly detailed and complicated user personas are difficult to remember and nearly impossible to use consistently across the org.

Simple personas are easy to define, and can be memorable by everyone. Being simple enough that you can recall them easily is what makes them effective.

Defining simple user personas

So how do you model a simple persona? You’re looking for the smallest representative sample of your target user-base. The easiest way to get at it is to ask this:

What are the most commonly observed user behaviours?

Let’s apply it to a few apps we use:

  • On-demand cab app: People book a cab for daily commute, people book cab on weekends for recreation, people book cab to/from airport – 3 personas right there
  • Food delivery app: People order lunch/dinner everyday (no cook at home, need consistency), people occasionally order (need variety)
  • Travel booking app: People travel for work (optimise for time over cost), people travel for vacation (optimise for cost over convenience)

In each of these examples, it’s clear to see how each person would be different. You’ll think differently when building for each of them. As personas, they’re easy to remember and use. They’re effective.

3 traits of simple user personas

  • They cover most of your target user-base if not all
  • They are easy to remember and bring up in discussions
  • They help you decide when faced with choices

Like good design principles, personas aren’t effective if they can’t help you decide.

How we define our personas

At Unacademy, our primary user-base is learners who’re preparing for a target examination, or learning with a purpose. Since learning is very personal and subjective, we needed to simplify the personas to make our everyday decision-making easier.

We narrowed them down to 2 distinct types of learners:

  • Learner A: They do not have a proper understanding of how to go about their preparation & learning. They need active guidance and rely on the platform to provide as much help as possible. They don’t like when we leave decision-making onto them.
  • Learner B: They come to the platform with a higher degree of self-awareness and pre-planning on their own. They know what they need and are generally adept at finding the right content and features to continue their preparation. They make their decisions mostly independently.
Graphics by our Creative Lead Anukriti Vijayavargia

As you can see, both learner personas are very clearly different and easy to recall.

Well-defined user personas can fit on a sticky note. If you need a larger artifact to describe them, they are likely not useful and definitely not usable.