Personas. Why they’re good for business.

January 10, 2019

Personas are a short cut. Unless you can have a real-life unbiased customer sitting in your office 24/7, answering and reacting naturally to every idea you have, then the next best thing is a persona.

To put it very bluntly, personas help you empathise. And empathy is the secret ingredient to creating products and services that people love. (Or hate, in case your job is to design a better speed trap for motorists.) How they help you empathise, however, varies depending on the job that you need the persona to do for you, as well as the context in which others will have to relate to the persona.

Broadly speaking, there are four categories of personas. Each type of persona description is suitable for a particular application and choosing the right type of persona to create is crucial to success of whatever it is that you are planning to do.

The four personas are:
1) workshop personas
2) presumption personas
3) function personas
4) ball-plank personas

Workshop personas

The workshop persona is, wait for it, a persona created for use by people during a workshop. The goal of the persona is to enable workshop participants to quickly empathise with a particular person / people group. The key words here were, quickly empathise. That means that the persona is reduced in terms of text, to the most core / key personality traits, pains and gains. It has to be readable in a flash, emotionally charged and memorable instantly. This allows people in the workshop to work on, whatever scenario they are working on, from the perspective of the persona.

Creating this type of persona is research intensive. It has to be anchored in reality. Because this persona eschews detail in favour of motivation and emotion, the amount of work to get to the main situational personality drivers, is quite large. Furthermore, the shorter something is written, the better it must be formulated.

The clear benefit of this type of persona, however, is that people quickly relate to them and can, from the users point of view, participate in a workshop scenario from outside of their own experience.


Presumption personas

As it says in the name, these personas are presumptions. In a situation where it is important to quickly get a user perspective, but without access to actual users but with access to subject matter experts, a team can quickly guesstimate alternative reasonable user profiles.

Presumption personas are useful up to a point. For internal workshops across silos, creating the presumption persona can help teams develop a common understanding of the customer / user, which later can facilitate coming to a common understanding of the customer’s / user’s challenges in using the product or service. They are also a time short-cut, because they allow teams to immediately delve into the product / service experience, without spending a lot of time first understanding the customer.

The danger, obviously, is that teams start presuming that the presumption personas are based in fact. Presumption being the mother of all fuck ups, it is crucial that the result of any kind of work done with presumption personas is later validated in real customer research. Interviews, observations etc.


Function personas

Function personas are detailed socio-demographic descriptions of persons in particular situations or functions. That means, that while they are humans with all the associated traits, the goal of the work at hand is to improve / understand the particular function they fulfil in a job. For example, the challenges an assembly line worker faces while the factory re-tools for the next generation product.

This type of granular persona allows persons with little or no personal experience of the challenges faced in that particular function, to better empathise while developing products / services that impact that functions ability to perform.

To develop these personas, a lot of research is needed, as well as audio-visual aids to really illustrate the daily challenges faced by the function. These personas will be used over an extended period of time while developing solutions, and therefore great care must be taken to render them accurate.


Ball-plank personas

A ball-plank is someone you can bounce ideas and concepts off. These types of personas are common in marketing, as definitions of key customers. Typically, there are several particular persona types that represent the brands important customer groups, but reduced to look and feel like real people. These personas include a lot of socio-demographic information from the customer group, but is re-worded to feel like one person.

Ball-plank personas are used for an extended period of time, before they are updated (but not discarded). People change over time, so personas should too, but not radically. Furthermore, while people grow into and out of brands, marketing will tend to focus on a core demographic.

The challenge with ball-plank personas is to make them relevant to persons in the organisation, who on a daily basis, don’t think about customers. Therefore, the most effective ball-plank personas will also have a workshop persona version, to make it easier for non-involved people to quickly empathise with the company’s core customer groups.


Choosing the right persona for the work you are doing is crucial, if you want others in the organisation to take personas seriously. People working with personas have to experience an immediate benefit otherwise they will treat them as nothing more that fictional characters with no basis in fact. Use workshop personas for understanding journeys of users when involving different stakeholders, that have an understanding of the service / product. Create presumption personas when you need to get going on a user experience design for a product or service, but have little / no data on actual usage patterns. Use function personas when you are working on limited experience situations, where the users are highly invested in the service or product (such as employees). Ball-plank personas are best for long-term brand and concept building situations, where everyone in the organisation needs to (eventually) have an understanding of who the customer actually is. Good luck, and remember to have fun.

PS: How we call persona types isn’t necessarily how other’s call them. But the essence is the same.

More on the topic...