Two designers polish up their personas

What Is a Persona? Everything You Need to Know

Emerson Schroeter

Perhaps you’re new to the world of UX and curious about user personas; maybe you’ve got some experience under your belt, but you’re looking for a refresher; or you may have heard some talk about “buyer personas” and you’re wondering what’s up. This guide will cover what personas are, four main types of personas, and how to get the most out of your user personas.

Personas are a commonly used tool among UXers—though they certainly exist outside of the design world. Personas help to make the end user, customer, or target market a bit more real to the people and teams in charge of serving, reaching out to, and designing for these people.

By gathering information about your users and transforming it into a set of fact-based profiles, you can represent the very real needs and goals of your users in personal and engaging ways and keep your user at the heart of every design decision you make.

This guide will cover:

  1. What are personas and why do they matter?
  2. Four main types of personas
  3. When and how to use personas
  4. Tips for how to get the most out of your personas
  5. How to create a user persona
  6. A final word

Ready to dive in? Let’s get started.

1. What are personas and why do they matter?

A persona is a profile. A character sketch. An approximation of a segment of your product users or target market. If you think of them in terms of archetypes, personas require you to look at who your users actually are (or the kinds of users you would like to focus on) and create a set of archetypes for the broad profile any one of your users might fit at any given time.

While there is some argument against the effectiveness of personas as a tool in UX design (mainly due to their common, but avoidable, pitfalls), the value of placing your users front and center is clear:

Personas generate empathy; and empathy is essential to the DNA of UX design. Personas allow you to look at a personal representation of your users and come to a better understanding of what your real users’ needs and goals look like in real moments of their lives.

No matter what kind of personas you choose to employ (more on that in a moment), if you’re making a focused and systematic effort to keep your users at the heart of every design decision you make, you’ll end up with a better product all around.

One example of what a typical user persona looks like. Image credit: CareerFoundry

2. Four main types of personas

There are four main types of personas that we’ll cover here—two in more detail than the rest: buyer personas (aka: marketing personas), user personas (aka: design personas), proto-personas, and persona spectrums.

Let’s start with the two most commonly confused: user personas and buyer personas.

User personas vs. buyer personas

User personas (also known as design personas) and buyer personas (also known as marketing personas) are widely discussed and easily confused. So we’ll break it down with a simple definition of each type and their primary similarities and differences.

Buyer personas are based on market research and information about your existing customers for the primary purpose of differentiating marketing efforts by market segment. The research and analysis that goes into shaping the details of a buyer persona are all geared toward understanding the role your product plays in buyers’ lives. The goal is to focus your messaging so that you are representing your product in an accurate and appealing fashion for your target market. Buyer personas can also help shape the broad direction of product development if they uncover any particular problems that the product could potentially solve for buyers.

User personas are based on user research and are designed for the primary purpose of cultivating empathy to influence the design process. The research and analysis that goes into these is similar to what goes into buyer personas in that you’ll examine your real or potential user base to understand who they are, how they accomplish specific tasks with your product, any situational factors that impact their experience, and how you might improve the products as a whole to make the entire experience as smooth, efficient, and delightful as possible.

Both persona types look at real or potential people who will experience your product or its messaging to varying degrees. You can use both types to discover ways to personalize, iterate, and improve on your existing product and marketing efforts.

The primary difference is that a buyer (marketing) persona is based on people who are buying the product and focuses primarily on improving the marketing efforts that reach these people; a user (design) persona is based on the people who are or will be actually usingthe product and focuses primarily on improving the design of the product itself.

If you’re a UXer, it can’t hurt to be familiar with marketing personas, but keep them separate from user personas—which you’ll likely work with a lot more than the other types.

Proto-personas: Good in a pinch

Proto-personas are personas based on educated guesses about your user base. If your time and resources for user research are limited for whatever reason, this type of persona can be a quick and easy way to implement the tool. It could also be a good way to dip your toe into the waters of user personas.

This type of persona tends to slip much more easily into the aforementioned pitfalls, so we don’t recommend this as an ongoing or habitual approach.

Persona spectrums: Design for inclusion

Persona spectrums are receiving growing attention in the design industry as the field moves toward inclusion. Persona spectrums take a “typical” user and create iterations of that same persona across a spectrum of ability, identity, background, or experience to factor a wider range of user needs into the design process.

For example, you could set up one of your personas as having limited use of one arm either permanently (amputation or paralysis), temporarily (arm is in a cast), or situationally (they’re holding a cup of coffee or a child, etc.).

This approach is based on the idea that any one of your users might experience exclusion from your product at any given time for any number of reasons—why not design a solution to that problem? You’ll end up with more inclusive personas and products.

Note that for the rest of this guide, we’ll focus on user personas and persona spectrums as these are most applicable in the field of UX design.

3. When and how to use personas

No matter what kind of personas you’re building, your most important job is to ensure that your personas accurately represent your users needs and goals—especially in the context of the product or features you’re looking to improve. This happens through rigorous user research, which is at the heart of the first stage of the UX design process: Empathize.

Diagram demonstrating the 5 stages of the design process (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test) and how they are not a linear process.

User personas are both:

  • A means of building empathy and defining user problems, and 
  • A result of the Empathize and Define stages of the UX design process

Build your personas during the Empathize stage of the UX design process. This is a great way to distill research findings and help you and your team to really solidify those insights and prepare to define the problems you’ll tackle in the remaining stages of the process. As you build them, you’ll naturally generate empathy and do some of the work of the Define stage as you begin to see patterns and notice things you may have missed in your initial research.

Having personas early in the design process will give you a solid foundation of understanding your users in more concrete terms and give you tools to generate empathy and understanding in your stakeholders. It’ll also give you a solid touchpoint to return to during subsequent stages of the design process.

Return to your personas in the Ideate stage of the design process: ask whether the ideas you’re coming up with really meet the needs and contexts represented by your personas. It may be that you come up with some really fantastic, exciting, shiny new ideas that you need to let go of or return to at a later date, because they don’t meet the needs of the moment. But chances are even greater that the parameters that your personas create will lead to some very original and relevant ideas that you and your team can tackle together.

4. Tips for how to get the most out of your personas

There are four common pitfalls when designers or design teams use personas. It’s important to acknowledge these pitfalls, but also to emphasize that these are problems that occur when personas are implemented incorrectly—and that you can avoid them quite easily!

Here are our tips for how to avoid each pitfall and make the most of this powerful tool.

Tip #1: Get buy-in from people outside the design team (as well). If you or your team are the little persona island in the company, personas will be naturally limited in their effectiveness.

Pitch personas to leadership and help them to see how personas can create a unified vision of who you’re serving, greater empathy for those users and their needs, and ultimately, a more cohesive and user-centered product experience.

And make personas a company-wide project! Involve people from every team, and especially leadership. Make it an engaging and meaningful experience! Allow everyone’s insights to shape the direction each persona takes.

Tip #2: Cultivate a better understanding of what personas are and what they do. Personas shouldn’t be created, used once, and set on a shelf or hung on a wall as a vague ideal or goal.

Help your colleagues understand what personas are, how they might factor into each team’s process, and what the results might look like. After you’ve got a set of personas set up for a project, actively involve them in meetings and workshops and coach other teams to do the same!

Tip #3: Create or re-create unique personas for every project. Personas are not one-size fits all. You’ll create a set of personas with a specific aspect of the product in mind. This focus will determine the kind of data you use, the teams you involve, and every detail of the personas you create. If you use the same set of personas for every project from now until the end of time, your personas could miss the mark.

With each new project comes a new set of problems to solve that will require different kinds of data and focus on different user needs and goals. Re-invent your personas with each new project’s goals in mind.

Tip #4: Broaden the scope of your personas and remember that they are merely archetypes. In reality, there is no “average” or “typical” user. Every human you’re designing for has a unique set of needs and goals, abilities, identity, and context/circumstances.

It’s impossible to focus your efforts on the needs and goals of every single person who might end up using your product, but if you’re not mindful in how you create your personas and what additional steps you take in the design process to minimize exclusion, your personas can limit your vision and ultimately the effectiveness of your product.

The best ways to steer clear of this pitfall? First, be sure to involve diverse users in your research and testing (in the creation of the data that will inform your personas), and diverse colleagues in the crafting of your personas. This will help your personas to include the needs and goals of users whose identities, experiences, abilities, and backgrounds fall outside of the assumed majority.

Another great way to keep your personas from limiting your vision is to expand the personas themselves into persona spectrums (more on these in a moment)

5. How to create a user persona

Whether you’re sticking with a traditional user persona or enriching that practice with persona spectrums, the starting point will always be user research. User research is your window into the worlds of the people who use your product; it’s where you’ll learn when and how they interact with your product, what that experience is like, and what factors you’ve overlooked that might impact that experience. This is where you discover ways to create better user experiences—which, for UXers, is kind of the point!

If you’d like to learn more about user research, CareerFoundry’s free UX Research for Beginners Course is a great place to start.

From there, you’ll work with your team to organize and interpret your findings into whatever deliverables (including personas!) you’ve decided will be most useful going forward.

Here’s our video guide on how to create a user persona:


6. A final word

Use them well, and personas have the power to transform users’ experiences with your product. Use them well, and you’ll learn more about your users and cultivate more empathy in your company than you might have thought possible.

If you’d like to learn more about user personas, check out these articles:

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Emerson Schroeter

Emerson Schroeter

Editor at CareerFoundry

Emerson is a New Mexican transplant to Berlin. They’re a nonbinary human with an MFA in creative writing and a passion for diversity, inclusion, and UX design.