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I'm involved in a project to build a new app. I would like to create personas but don't have the time or budget to find actual would-be users. Note: I've never created personas before and my agency does not have a culture of user-research, but I figure having some well-considered user models is better than none at all.

I have access to some stakeholders (including the project sponsor) who are in regular contact with the app's target audience. I managed to get some time with them to try and gather some data that may help inform the personas.

However I'm at a lost on the types of questions to ask and how to structure the discussion towards getting what I need for the personas. Would a list of common user attributes (e.g. age, sex, level of tech savvy) be enough? Do I even ask about the different types of users they encounter?

Has anyone had any experience with this kind of user research?

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Personas are a kind of Qualitative Market Research - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualitative_marketing_research. There should be plent of information on this on the net. –  PhillipW Jun 4 '12 at 10:20
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Related: ux.stackexchange.com/questions/21891/… –  Adriaan Jun 4 '12 at 18:24
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Related: ux.stackexchange.com/questions/1886/… –  Joel Garfield Jun 4 '12 at 21:00
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4 Answers

You want to primarily ask about behaviour when you interview your stakeholders.

Personas in UX are usually focused on behavioural characteristics, or attributes/contexts that directly impact behaviour, and sometimes attributes that imply in a stereotypical manner (eg. retirement age implies accessibility issues, moms with young children are time poor).

Ask questions like:

  • Are there some users that are more persistent than others, are there some users that give up early?
  • What proportion (if any) of your user base appear to bring extensive experience/knowledge/understanding from elsewhere?
  • Is it typical that users explore the optional parts of the interface/site before deciding on an action? Are there some users that instead make a bee-line for what they want and ignore any possible distractions?
  • What kind of users are more spontaneous than others? Are there groups that are more conservative/careful/risk-averse than others?

NB: don't ask "Are users persistent?" and other forms which treat all users as a cohesive block - you are trying to identify multiple personas, not settle on some generalisation of all users.

It helps if you first make a list of behavioural dimensions which are relevant for you project. Spontaneity and risk-aversion are relevant for a stock-trading portal, not so much for a health-plan selection website.


Then for each of the primary questions you can expand and drill deeper asking about the user's context or attributes.

  • Tell me more about persistent users ...
  • Which customers are typically more likely in that group [of persistence]?

This gets easier as the stakeholders would likely be volunteering this information in answering the primary questions (e.g. "Yes, students are more persistent").


If stakeholders can speak to secondary characteristics (age, ESL, occupation, etc ), being informed by client records (etc) cross-referenced to website analytics, then that is quite useful.

However, they often can't actually accurately speak to secondary characteristics but they would likely nonetheless do so, revealing the stereotypes they believe. This isn't a total wash though, as personas play the role of stereotypes and you'll be picking up some colour which matches their expectations.

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The form of a persona depends on it's usage. Decide how it will be used in further development process to gather more requirements about what you need to ask. For example sometimes it happens that one gets the most active feedback from users that do not play the primary nor the secondary role - so it wise to ask about the excluded personas.

Next, one needs to know what personas should be included and what are they. First interviews are for stating and establishing the hypothesis, the next ones for deepening the personas.

Another thing, one should create the personas around the common goals and roles, not around common attributes. If a system have a multiple user groups, each having a common goal and each consisting of people of different age, gender and disabilities - then maybe that whole system need to be designed for different ages, genders and disabilities in mind. The personas are there for helping you help users achieving their goal.

Persona is a basement for scenarios. Of course, mistakenly created personas may lead the project off track, but remember - personas are only hypotheses. The worst is a lack of user feedback in the later stages. If one doesn't know the flow of actions that user performs to achieve goals (scenarios) and if one doesn't test prototypes against users, then one takes all the investments in a project into a roulette. Surprise is at the end.

If you plan to arrange the user needs with the Kano model you will surely find that user can usually speak about some performance issues. She will have a hard time telling you about all the basic needs, because it's "so obvious". She will tell you nothing about the excitements she doesn't know (and she isn't so creative to think of). So recognizing the basics (with use of scenarios) and creating "the wow" is your part.

In my opinion the lack of user research on personas isn't so risky. If your stakeholders have a frequent contact with users they can a very fairly describe an overall picture. Nevertheless, without further user involvement every persona will be only a insignificant artefact.

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When you don't have the opportunity to make interviews by yourself, knowing about your end user even if it's from a third party is better than nothing.

Adding to the demographic attributes like age or gender, something I find really useful is listening to the stories that those people have shared, the personal as well as the ones interacting with the product.

Other source of information can be the customer support department, just sharing a coffee with someone who works everyday trying to explain things to users should be enlightening.

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Some general tips for creating personas can be found in this article from 2010. I know just paste a link is not a good answer, but the article is pretty good and creating just small excerpt out of it seems a litte hard.

My personal hint is, that doing an interview with people who know the end users instead of the those users themselves is a good start but may be too vague in the end. Maybe the stakeholder can get just one or two of the users he knows for your interview.

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A decent link. Perhaps bullet-point the chapter headings as a summary? –  RedSirius Nov 22 '13 at 10:39
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