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This article was originally printed in the October 2003 issue (Vol 10, No. 2)


About the Author

Whitney Quesenbery is a user interface designer and usability professional who has been entranced by personas and their power to guide the design process. She can be found at Whitney Interactive Design, or on the web at

STC Usability SIG Newsletter

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Usability Interface

Using Personas: Bringing Users Alive

by Whitney Quesenbery

How do we communicate what we know about the people who use our products in an engaging, efficient way? How do we get beyond statistics to a portrait of users that helps us use this information to make decisions?

A "persona" is a portrait of a typical person who embodies key user characteristics. By creating personas that represent the most important user groups, you create a group of personas that embody an understanding of the key user groups and how they differ from each other. The techniques for creating personas start with user analysis and use aspects of storytelling or playwriting to fill in the details of a compelling portrait. This portrait can include demographic information, attitudes, needs, motivations, as well as personal details.

Although personas are traditionally created from user research—including interviews, contextual inquiry, and other qualitative methods—information to form the basis of personas can also be collected from within a team or company. Like a knowledge management project, gathering this information focuses on finding out what "you" already know about real users. People from sales to training and from field service to those who formerly worked in the field can provide insights, anecdotes, and stories you can use to add detail to the personas. In cases where you have no access to users at all, these people can be an alternative source of information. You may find gaps or contradictions (which can be used to justify direct user research).

Personas can be used in many ways throughout the design and evaluation of a new product:

  • Scenarios of use illustrate how, when, and why each persona uses or interacts with the product.
  • The learning styles suggested for each persona can suggest how information should be presented to them…and what information they are looking for.
  • Differences between the personas can illuminate design discussions, showing which features will be most useful for each of the personas.
  • Design reviews can be conducted from the point of view of a persona, adding another dimension to a traditional peer review or interface walk-through.
  • The personas can be the basis for demographic requirements in selecting participants for usability testing.
  • The scenarios created for the personas can also be used for usability testing, or for quality assurance.

Personas are an increasingly popular way to embody and share user research—a low-cost, high-impact way to make users come alive for the entire team. Give them a try on your next project.

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