How and Why to Create User Personas for your App

October 25, 2016 - 8 minutes read

app developer

User personas are one of the most mysterious parts of the app user experience (UX) design process for non-designers. They’re also one of the most important parts of app development, and apps that reference user personas throughout all stages from idea to launch are much more likely to succeed.

Stereotypes are never a good thing. Or are they? In the case of user personas, they can actually be quite useful.

User personas are your chance to unleash your inner assumptions — except that in this case, those assumptions will be based on real-world research.

In today’s post we’ll shine a light on what effective user personas look like, why they matter, and how to make them.

What is a user persona?


A user persona is essentially what it sounds like — a snapshot of a potential user. Generally, a user persona will be based on interviews and research from real-world people in your target audience.

Rather than simply choosing a random person from that group to represent all of them, user personas combine trends within that audience to create “smart stereotypes” that embody common features of your target audience.

User personas are different from “proto-personas”, which are constructed purely based on assumption without any real-world user research.

What does a good user persona look like?

app developer

Mapping the minds of your startup’s potential app users.

There are four key parts of an effective user persona:

  • Basic information: this includes name, age, profession, etc.
  • Characteristics: are they a good student? Drinking problem? Lots of friends, or more a loner?
  • Objectives: what makes this person “tick,” and what do they need that your app can help them get? What challenges do they face, and how will your startup help them persevere?
  • Scenarios: Simple summaries of how they find your app, and how they interact with it.

These can be packaged in a variety of ways — on sticky notes, on a whiteboard, on posters, on playing cards — whatever makes them easy to access and understand for your team’s working style.

If you’d like to jump right in with an example related to your app, try filling out this template from Creative Companion. You’ll probably find your own style for compiling user information, but this is a great starting point.

The important thing is that they’re clear, and based on research rather than pure intuition.

How to make a user persona


A sample persona: note the focus on how Jill’s backstory informs the “pain point” an app can solve.

There are a variety of schools of thought when it comes to conducting the user research that forms the basis of user personas. In general, there are two types of research: active and passive.

During active user research, UX designers interview individual people one-on-one, recording data and looking for pain points they can solve. User personas are made by looking at the results from a wide range of interviews and turning the trends and things they have in common into archetypes that represent each variety of “typical” user.

In passive user research, potential users are observed as they engage in activities related to an app’s function, or interacted with in a way that doesn’t reveal the true purpose of the conversation. Passive user research also includes observations made from online communities, social media, and similar “second-hand” sources.

In both cases, the goal is for mobile app developers to get a grasp of what real-world customers want. (Rather than relying on assumptions.)

App development is an exercise in imagination. User personas help stop our imaginations from running away with themselves.

User personas encourage user-first development

mobile app user

As startup founders, we’re often very attached to our dreams and ideas.

For many NYC iOS app developers, there’s a feeling that your app idea is brilliant, and it’s your job to “prove” that to the world.

There’s just one problem with that thinking: over 1,000 apps are launched every single day. If your app doesn’t solve a pressing problem in a simple way, getting traction is virtually impossible. “They’ll love it once they figure it out” simply isn’t good enough anymore.

Scope creep” is also a major issue with developers, as more features and details start to seem important during the ideation process. Unfortunately, a feature add-on here and an extra screen there quickly adds up to a bloated, expensive app.

Ultimately, the only way to test a feature is to launch the app, and every feature that doesn’t get traction represents resources wasted.

User personas help avoid both of these issues by keeping developers and designers grounded during each phase of app development. This way, features are always validated by real-world people, rather than vague assumptions.

The fun part: user scenarios

app users

User personas aren’t much use if they aren’t applied to a narrative. UX designers call that narrative a “scenario” — the way a persona will act when attempting to achieve a particular goal under particular circumstances.

Scenarios can change throughout the development process, and used as a sort of litmus test for new feature ideas. While no substitute for real-world testing, scenario exercises are proven by peer-reviewed studies to result in high-quality fast-paced app development.

Empathy and experience


User personas are valuable on a practical level for hammering out the details of feature sets, but they also have a big-picture purpose: encouraging empathy between app developer and app user.

Entrepreneurs may think of themselves as business people, but in the end it’s only those who truly understand the pains and needs of their customers who will be successful.

User personas are just one of many UX techniques that can build this critical value for app developers and startup teams.

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