• Public Research + Design

How to get better personas

Personas are a popular tool used in design, community engagement, placemaking, marketing and commercial strategy. They represent typical segments of a community, or customer base and are used to predict needs, issues and behaviour. Often, they form the basis of strategic decisions, so having good personas is important to achieve better places, service delivery, engagement and business.

There are, however, some traps in designing personas that we see happen over and over again. Avoiding them will help you make better decisions. Here are our top 3 tips:

Use research, not assumptions

Personas look deceptively simple – it’s tempting to just use your gut feel and divide your customer base into perceived segments, especially if you think you know your customers or community well. But beware – you are likely to use many biases and unchecked assumptions in your segmentation – we all do, it’s human. For personas the old adage ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ is very helpful. To do personas well you have to conduct original research that fits your unique customer base or community. It doesn’t have to be very lengthy or involved, but it should be based on research.

Divide according to behaviour, not demographic data

As researchers and strategists we know data is important, but even more important is using the right data for the right purpose. Unfortunately, we see way too often personas that are simply based on demographic data, such as age, gender, and income levels. There are even computer programs who promise to develop personas according to the postcode. We can’t stress it enough – these are demographic profiles, not personas. Personas are descriptions of how your customers or community behave and think, what their real drivers and needs are in relation to your specific project. Naturally, demographic data can be helpful in understanding people ,but personas go way beyond that.

Use qualitative, in addition to quantitative data

In government and business there is a strong reliance on quantitative data – numbers that tell us what, where and how many. While that is important, it can never answer deeper questions about our customer or community. Questions such as why people visit – or not, what they desire – or not, and what they would like to see in the future. Only qualitative data can answer these kinds of questions, and they are also vital for developing useful personas. So, when researching personas it is very helpful to have both quantitative and qualitative data and use them in combination.

Following these suggestions is only the tip of the iceberg when developing personas, but it can help you avoid costly mistakes and flawed decision-making. For more related reading check out these articles:


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