Personas, Maybe. Choosing the Best Model to Bring Focus to Your User-Centered Process

By Helen King
August 25, 2023

Personas are a useful resource for guiding UX design and product strategy. They distill customer research into a concise, shareable format and help teams maintain perspective on who they are designing for.

If you’re thinking about creating personas, chances are you are looking for a way to bring a customer perspective into your design process and decision-making. While personas may be the right approach, they do require time and effort to develop, so it’s important to determine if they are the best tool for achieving your goals.

Before delving into personas, take a step back and consider them alongside two other possible frameworks: product archetypes and user modes. If you decide that personas are the way to go, use strategies to ensure that they are rich and dimensional so that they provide the most benefits to your team.

Why personas can be tricky, but valuable, tools

As a framework, personas are a container shaped by the learnings from customer research. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating personas; they are flexible in terms of how customers are grouped and what kind of information is included in the persona format.

To make matters more complicated, the term “persona” is used in different disciplines to refer to customer groupings at various levels. This includes buyer types, user types, professional roles, and demographic segments.

Further muddying the water, while personas can provide valuable customer empathy, they can sometimes become the default solution when other conceptual models may be more effective solutions for informing product design.

So when should you choose personas over other options?

Pursue personas to understand customer goals & motivations

UX personas aim to understand your customers from an emotional perspective: where they struggle, what their goals are, and their values.

Although customers’ demographics or professional roles may be relevant, the most effective UX and product design personas prioritize the factors that drive customers’ motivations, behaviors, and decision-making.

In this way, these rich stand-ins for your customers can inform a range of activities within your company. They can inspire new features and product offerings, influence messaging, and define a strategic focus for the business. You can use them to generate experience principles that reflect your customers’ needs, or as a recruiting lens for ongoing research efforts like customer interviews and usability testing.

Personas use case: moving beyond a general target user

A direct-to-consumer business was using a single persona to define their target user. While the persona was a useful reflection of their general user base in the early stages, the company had grown and wanted to understand the differences within their customers and any that were not captured in their initial target user persona.

We worked with the team to conduct research with customers exploring their experiences, what was important to them, and how they made decisions within the product space. The result was a set of four personas that provided a richer picture of customer values and needs to drive product, design, and communications for the company.

Creating UX personas that provide value

If personas sound like a worthy pursuit, consider the following tips:

  1. After conducting research with customers, use the data to sort customers in different ways to find your most salient groupings. We like to create summary cards for each research participant and then try different persona groupings: one more value-based, one more behaviors-based, and one more product-based.
  2. Explore ways to include both qualitative and quantitative inputs. You may start with a quantitative survey to gauge different customer values, then use a qualitative study to explore the survey themes. Or, follow up a qualitative study with a survey to quantify your customers across personas. (Or, both!)
  3. Consider focusing your personas output less on demographics and more on scenarios. While an individual persona may have a name, age, and particular life stage, you can include in the persona summary other scenarios of customers who may fall into this group. This way you provide more context and avoid oversimplifying.

Use product archetypes to understand the product from your customer’s perspective

Whereas personas seek to understand customers from an emotional angle, product archetypes seek to understand your product from a perceptional view: the different ways customers think about your product and what they value most about it.

You can think about product archetypes as a twist on customer personas. They are a synthesis of customer research but rather than short-hand representations of customers, product archetypes are representations of your product from customers’ perspective.

The value of product archetypes is their function as a reality check. They help you step out of your point of view to understand customers’ attitudes about your product that can inform how you shape the product experience, features to prioritize, or areas to address to better reflect customer needs and values.

Product archetypes use case: considering different customer attitudes

We worked with a new-to-market health app to understand how users of competitive apps felt about using their current solutions to track health-related activities.

We heard a range of feelings about their experiences. Whereas some loved seeing the health tracking data, others felt conflicted about relying too heavily on the app to make decisions. We created a set of product archetypes that reflected these ranging perceptions of tracking apps – along a spectrum from “Necessary Vice” to “The Deciding-Factor.”

The set of product archetypes helped the team to better understand the range of use cases and how to support them through the app design, from more simplified UI to added features to provide more user control.

Creating product archetypes that give new perspective

If you think product archetypes will best work for you, consider the following:

  1. When conducting research with customers, listen carefully to the language participants use to describe the product or service, the main benefits it provides, and the role it plays in their lives.
  2. Using the data, create your product archetypes with supporting examples of how they apply to your product. For example, a “Curator” product archetype for a media app could be relevant for customers who value the authority of the app, and look to it to be a guide.
  3. Consider strategies to make the archetypes come to life for your team. Using evocative metaphors and imagery help reposition your product from a different point of view. Include supporting quotes from research to demonstrate customers’ perspectives.

Apply user modes to structure your product around user goals

In contrast to emotions or perceptions, user modes seek to understand customers and their behaviors from a more functional angle: the different goals and mindsets that drive their product behaviors.

User modes are not intended to categorize customers into groups like personas, but to describe a user’s goal at a particular point in time which may flex and fluctuate in different circumstances. A user may come to your website in one mode, and then move into another mode once their original goal is achieved.

The benefit of user modes is their ability to help support customers’ tactical goals and better guide their experience. If you know what a user is looking to achieve on your site, you can better identify ways to remove friction in their path and simplify their experience through supporting flows, navigation, and overall site structure.

User modes use case: designing to in-the-moment shopping goals

Imagine you want to understand user goals and behaviors for an e-commerce site. Looking at user analytics, you see common flows they use on the site then conduct research with customers to shed light on your analytics through the goals your customers express.

With these inputs, you could identify a user mode of “Compare” where a user has the goal of finding the best products or prices. “Compare” behaviors could include browsing, adding to cart, reviewing their cart, and removing purchases – all on repeat.

Knowing this is a common user mode can help you design for easy comparisons and product finding so that users pinpoint what works for them more quickly. This would differ from a mode like “Discover” where a user has the goal of exploring their options and getting ideas for what to purchase.

Creating data-based user modes

If you decide to create user modes, think about using the following strategies:

  1. Use insights from analytics and user research to understand how current behaviors relate to users’ goals. This helps identify potential workarounds users employ to accomplish goals on your site, which would be misunderstood using analytics alone.
  2. Use a consistent format for your user modes that shares the customer’s goal, the supporting flows, and known pain points.
  3. Once you’ve created your modes, look for anything missing. Perhaps you expected a mode that you didn’t find or want to support through future features. Understanding missing modes can help identify ways to support these goals and behaviors differently through the design.

Using customer-focused models to cut through complexity and design better products

Before pressing “go” on personas, consider your goals and what kind of customer framework will best meet your needs.

Personas, product archetypes, and user modes are all useful ways to guide a user-centered process. Based on your product goals, it may make sense to pursue one now and another later.

The main objective is to create tools that provide a customer focus for your team and improve the experience for your customers.

Make Design Decisions Grounded in Customer Insights

Everyday Industries is a UX strategy and digital product design firm. Learn how our UX research and strategy services can help ensure your product experience resonates with your customers and drives business growth.