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The Elements of a Persona

Sara Tetreault

Brand Strategy Director, Forum One

A persona is a research-based document that describes a typical person from one of your key audiences.

A persona typically starts with assumptions you have about your audiences and is solidified by research with members of your key audiences. The persona itself summarizes your research findings into one single page and you’ll probably have more than a few personas if you have a variety of user types. Personas are helpful when building a digital experience, branding, or communications because they help get your team into the audiences’ shoes and empathize with their needs, biases, and motivations, resulting in a more useful experience. 

Why Do I Need a Persona?

All the work that we do should be focused on your audiences and informed by audience research. We can’t emphasize this enough! Everything you do should be with the audience in mind, otherwise, why bother?

The Top 3 Reasons Why Your Project Needs a Persona:

  1. Personas summarize audience details and allow you to design for their needs. Projects succeed when audiences are clear, defined, and informed by actual user feedback
  2. By understanding your audiences, you can identify ways to best engage your audiences. If you understand what motivates them, you can better engage them through content, design, and the overall experience.
  3. Personas give everyone on the project team (including you!) a shared understanding of an audience type. Some organizations print large personas and hang them in the office hallways to promote everyone’s understanding.

Ultimately, audience personas summarize real information from your audiences into distilled portraits and provide a foundation from which you can make informed design decisions about your brand and digital experience.

Why Do Personas Fail?

Sometimes personas fall flat. We’ve seen this happen for two reasons:

  1. There is no audience research to support the personas. Personas are the most useful and accurate when you conduct interviews or surveys to gather real data about your audience’s needs. Ideally, you should aim to gather data from multiple people from each audience you are hoping to engage in. Personas aren’t meant to be the description of one person, but rather a fictional representation of the users who you are engaging in a similar way or with similar desired outcomes. If you’re unable to connect with actual people from your audience groups, the resulting personas will primarily consist of assumptions that you are making about your audiences without proof of those hypotheses.
  2. Your audiences are not specific enough. The “general public” is not a helpful or descriptive audience group; we all fall into this group! If you target everyone, you actually target no one. Personas provide the most value when you narrow in on your audience and focus on the specific needs of a specific group of people based on their experiences and what they are hoping to get from your organization.

How to remedy these issues: invest in audience research! You’ll always learn something new, obtain useful sound bytes to use as quotes, and have a better grasp on what people need. Don’t be afraid to narrow in! By designing toward a more specific audience group, you can be much more focused and purposeful with your design. If you’re unclear as to what your audience may be motivated by, or what their needs and concerns are, personas will be especially useful for your organization.

The Elements of a Persona

Meet Pooja! We’ll walk through the elements of a persona using Pooja as an example. Let’s get started!

1. Personal Information

  • Example: Pooja, 42 years old, Researcher, Washington DC.
  • What it is: This is basic background information about your audience. The information that we like to collect includes:
    • Name
    • Gender
    • Age
    • Occupation/Company
    • Location
    • Photo
  • Why include: We want these personas to feel like they’re about real people. By providing a name, a photo, and other personally identifying information, we can bring these personas to life.

2. Description

  • Example: Pooja conducts research for a small healthcare group. She covers issues pertaining to healthcare policy locally and nationally. Lately, she’s been particularly conducting research on how states are using healthcare data to improve outcomes.
  • What it is: A short explanation of who the audience is, what they do, and what their main focus is.
  • Why include: The description provides context about what the person cares about or focuses on. We need to know this in order to understand how the item we’re designing (website, product, etc) fits into their larger experience).

3. Motivation

  • Example: Along with all her other work deadlines, Pooja has a research report due in two weeks on how states publish and use of health data, the good and the bad. She has been reaching out to think tanks and major healthcare data groups to understand how they publish and use data in their work. 
  • What it is: A brief explanation of what’s driving the audience’s actions and choices.
  • Why include: To explain why your audience does what they do with your organization.

4. Main Quote

  • Example: “I need information or data that I speak to my hypotheses on the topic. Who can I contact right now?”
  • What it is: A compelling quote that summarizes what this person’s immediate needs or perspective is.
  • Why include: The quote and the photo in a persona are often the most memorable. These elements make the persona more human and give a greater sense of who you’re designing for.

5. Goals

  • Example: Pooja wants to compare and review how different states and healthcare companies are improving their health outcomes through the use of data. She has already collected the data but needs to get the perspective of experts in the field.
  • What it is: The top three to five things that this audience needs to accomplish. These are the high-level goals that they have: to view, find, compare, choose, promote, sign up, identify, donate, purchase, review, etc.
  • Why include: By including this information, we’ll be able to know if and how your audience is successful.

6. Concerns

  • Example:  Pooja is concerned the healthcare data she’s finding may not be accurate. Pooja is worried that she will not collect the information she needs to present the key themes from her research in time for the meeting in two weeks. She is also frustrated that many of the people she has contacted at think tanks are not getting back to her in a timely fashion.
  • What it is: The top three to five worries that this audience has. These are the potential issues that could impact their success.
  • Why include: By including this we’ll know what your audience’s potential blockers are.

7. Primary Needs

  • Example: Pooja needs to have access to a database of healthcare data for various geographic areas so that she can download the data and run her own reports. Pooja needs contact information for the people who publish the data, so she can confirm her assumptions. Pooja needs contact information for experts in the field to understand the opportunities and risks around healthcare data usage.
  • What it is: The top three to five needs that this audience has. These are the necessary things they must have in order to complete their goals: “I need to have access to XYZ. I need to have this information on XYZ. I need to be able to do XYZ.”
  • Why include: This is important to include to ensure that we provide your audiences the resources they have to have to accomplish their goals.

8. Feelings

  • Example: Pooja is disappointed/frustrated to see that there is not enough data for her to discern if there’s been any improvement in health outcomes for these states.
  • What it is: The emotions you want your audience to feel about your organization or the tasks they have to do with your organization. 
  • Why include: Providing your audience’s feelings allows us to empathize with the audience and anticipate their attitude.

9. Additional Quotes

  • Example: “I honestly think that this data is reported in a very confusing way and it is too time-consuming for me to parse through it. I want to be able to get my research done quickly and simply!”
  • What it is: Ideally these are quotes that we can pull from our audience research, especially interviews. These quotes may answer questions such as what does your audience want, questions they have, or any opinions they may have about your organization/website, etc.
  • Why include: The quotes are the actual feedback from your audiences about their experience with your organization. Including these quotes gives us a very detailed perspective about important tasks and problems.

Much More

We’ve covered the main elements of a persona, however personas vary widely depending on what information you deem to be important or relevant to your organization. Here are a few other ingredients that we sometimes include in our personas:

  • Tech Savviness / Internet Usage
  • Familiarity with Your Brand
  • Brands Owned and Used
  • Social Media Usage
  • Favorite Apps
  • Communication Preferences
  • Personality Traits
  • Skills
  • Background / Experience
  • Likes / Dislikes
  • Values
  • Influencers
  • Habits

Free Persona Worksheet

We recommend compiling this information into a spreadsheet before you jump into creating your persona. This will allow you to check that you’ve gathered all the information you need and compare the differences and similarities between your audiences. We’ve included a worksheet for you to use if you’re interested in following our persona model! Access the free Persona Content Worksheet!

In Summary

Once we’ve gathered all the necessary information about your audiences, we compile it into personas that you’ll be able to reference again and again and update from time to time as you gain more information about your audiences. By understanding these basic elements for each of your audiences, you’ll have a clearer picture of how to successfully meet each of your audience’s needs and engage them in your mission and values.

Written By

Sara Tetreault

Brand Strategy Director, Forum One

Interested in developing personas for your audiences?

Reach out to us! We’d love to dive into audience research with your organization and develop insightful personas!