Personae are a potent business intelligence tool that are frequently misunderstood, misconstructed or assumptive. The consequences of rolling out "made up" personae as fact will ensure that any user experience is based around a premise.
Perhaps it's best to start out by defining what a persona is not. The idea that a persona is created by looking at a demographic segment and giving it a lick of personality veneer arouses dismay within any self-respecting UX practitioner.
I've seen many a personae constructed subjectively, outside of UX; hurriedly put together within pitch documents to demonstrate an awareness of a particular organisation's users. Having won the pitch, these personae are not interrogated, but believed by client and agency to be correct. They then get handed to IAs who use them to create user journeys.
Another mistake is for an organisation to predefine who they think their personae are and how many there are. This can only result in forced and diluted stereotypes that serve as a kind of pale doppelgänger. Or worse, too many personae, many of which are shades of each other. And from a business point of view, this becomes an expensive exercise that only distracts and confuses. Most persona investigation exercises yield around a handful of primaries, the median being around three.
The interesting thing about personae is that you never know what will emerge from your quantitative and qualitative data. There is something almost magical in the way archetypes emerge from the clusters of attitudes and behaviours of groups of people that you interview.
It is vital that your personae are empirical if you are to develop an insight into designing truly user-centred interfaces. I use a mixture of primary and secondary research, because it's important to validate what you discover through focus groups or interviews against data captured from surveys and the like.Keeping an Open Mind
Remaining receptive means that you won't influence your subjects, who are often vulnerable to giving what they believe to be the right answer - after all, you are paying them to participate, and people do like to please!
This predisposition is often seen in user testing, where participants will give glowing reports of their experience on an interface, despite observational evidence to the contrary.Setting the Criteria
It's important to establish beforehand, however, what you are hoping to achieve from your research. Are you trying to capture attitudinal data, are you investigating the type of content they would like to receive? There is a delicate balance between allowing people to wander off into delicious tangents, and bringing them back to the core of what you are trying to investigate. Allowing people to "flow" can often allow for deeper insights that may not have been uncovered within a rigid facilitation framework.
Another thing to watch out for is the group dynamic within focus groups. Some people like to lead, whilst others are passive. Ensure that everyone gets an opportunity to contribute.
It's a good idea to work in a small team when conducting primary research, so that you have several sets of eyes and ears, and can bounce your observations off of each other.Identifying the Persona
After several focus groups or interviews, patterns begin to emerge. You notice that people across groups begin to show similar attitudes or needs. Your persona becomes a composite sketch of these findings. While your persona itself is not "real", it has its basis in real people...
Once you have what you believe are the full set of personae, it's time to discover who your primary personae are. These are the personae that, if you design for them alone, would in some way disenfranchise another persona. Analysis will reveal who the primary personae, with their distinct needs, are.
Your secondary personae will sit beneath, or between your primaries. These are the people whose needs are satisfied by designing for the primaries, but who also have additional, sometimes less important [from the business perspective], needs that can be easily accommodated within the design.
You may find that you have other personae who, while interesting, are not necessarily part of the main audience as defined by the business goals. For example, these might be people who wouldn't use a digital artefact for one reason or another. They help to form the wider picture, and these are your third, or tertiary personae.
Once you have created your hierarchy, you are ready to use your primary personae to inform the design process.
They become the voice of the user - a reminder to let go of personal whims or cognitive biases and design authentic user-centred products.
As a business tool, personae can be used across disciplines to enlighten and inform production. The insight that they provide means that a brand is communicating directly with people and not "consumers". It's never a good idea to have a static view on personae - each new project requires new research. If the business proposition changes or grows, new research must be conducted. A new game, a new hand of cards, so to speak.
Since personae are constructed from real people, it's useful to recall focus group participants or interviewees to test and validate as the product is developed.
The fruit of a tree is only as sweet as the strength of its roots; it's a grave mistake to be glib about what real people do and need.
And finding out what real people's goals are is simple. Just ask them!