UX Personas without User Research: The Harsh Reality

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Have you ever felt like user personas are sometimes just a check box exercise?

Something you know is needed, but you can’t quite figure out why or how they’ll help?

Have you ever wondered if they were even necessary for your project?

We’ve all been there, and understanding how and when to use personas is part of the journey to mastering the art and science of UX Design.

In this article, we’ll explore why you don’t always need personas, what you can do instead, and how to make sure your time is always well spent during the research phase.

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You Don’t Always Need User Personas

User personas can be costly, time-consuming, and sometimes completely unnecessary.

Even worse, badly designed personas can be misleading and sometimes not useful at all.

Is there a flaw in the theory of personas themselves, or just our inability to make them effective?

The goal of a user persona is to capture and convey useful, actionable insights that help people to understand the user and make more informed design decisions.

But all too often, they become a check-box exercise because we’ve read somewhere that they’re a critical part of the UX Design process.

User personas are often ineffective because they are not tailored to the specific needs of the project.

Personas should be designed to create value for our specific needs and contexts. Like any piece of ux research, we should start by understanding what we want to learn and then choose a research methodology and artifact that helps us get what we need.

Sometimes a persona will get us what we need, but other times we might be able to get away with a simple research report from some focused user interviews.

Or, we could use our insights to create Jobs to Be Done, Mindsets, or Archetypes.

The important thing is that we’re speaking to users regularly, correctly defining the problem, sharing our research findings, and validating our design decisions.

Whatever deliverable you choose, just remember that it’s the research that creates the value. The deliverable is just a method for summarizing and sharing our findings to help others understand our research. It also gives us something to reference and refresh our memory later in the project.

Proto Personas: A Quick and Dirty Solution

A proto persona is a lightweight, ad hoc version of a persona that’s made using existing research and available information, along with the assumptions and best guesses of the team.

They’re a good way to tease out the assumptions the team has about the users, collate existing information, and identify knowledge gaps.

They’re particularly useful at the beginning of a project to get the ball rolling and align the team on what they do and don’t know about users.

A proto persona is a lightweight way to represent users using existing research and information.

A proto persona can be created as an initial foundation from which you can continue to build and develop as you conduct research throughout the project.

They allow you to get moving quickly without spending too much time conducting in-depth ux research on a project that has a limited budget, tight time constraints, or lots of existing research.

The danger with proto-personas is that if they contain too many assumptions or inaccurate data, they can give us false confidence and lead to bad decision-making. Or, since people aren’t getting value from them, they can undermine the value of proper user research.

That said, if you keep them focused, lightweight, and based only on what you know. Then they can be an effective way to align teams and get a project moving.

Always remember to make it explicit to the team where the proto persona contains assumptions. Be sure to communicate the risk of relying on these assumptions. And always make a plan for evolving them into fully-fledged, well-researched user personas.

The Limitations of UX Personas Without User Research

A proto person is a great way to align teams early on and figure out where the knowledge gaps are. But if you rely too heavily on personas that aren’t the product of thorough user research, you’re introducing a lot of risk into your project.

Without speaking to users directly, personas will lack the depth of insight that comes from in-depth interviews or observation. For personas to be useful, they should contain the nuance needed to help you make an informed design decision throughout the project based on a user segment’s specific user needs.

Persona creation without user feedback is a risky endeavor.

Without feedback and validation from users, assumptions may end up baked into the persona without ever being questioned. It’s important to highlight which insights can be trusted and which ones are assumptions. That way, the design team can plan to get the assumptions validated later on.

And without digging deep to understand your target audience’s larger context and environment, it’s difficult to segment the potential users in a way that helps us understand the true breadth of their experience. Our assumptions and biases will lead us to create narrow and obvious personas.

It’s important to remember that personas alone won’t provide the full picture of what users need and should be used in combination with other ux design artifacts like journey maps.

So if you’re creating personas on a project, it’s always worth connecting with real users first. That way, you can ensure you’re getting an accurate look at who they are and what they need so that your design decisions are based on fact rather than assumption.

Importance of User Research in Creating Personas

If you don’t have the time, budget, or resources to create proper user personas. It might be better to consolidate your existing research data into a provisional persona or analyze search queries and customer service data to collate a set of Jobs to Be Done or User Stories.

Then, later in the project, as you get more exposure to users, you can ask them questions that will help you to build the knowledge base you need to create properly researched user personas.

That way, you avoid the potential risk of creating ineffective or misleading personas.

It is better to create provisional personas from research data than to not have personas at all.

User research is critical because it reduces the risk product development. It gives us the information we need to make evidence-based decisions. It also allows us to validate our decisions before we commit time and resources to build a product or feature.

Although no project can be completely free of risk, good research can significantly improve our chances of success. It helps us to understand the lived experiences of our users and helps us to identify the range of different user types that we need to design for.

Before starting a research project, it’s important to consider what learnings will be most valuable to us and how much time do we have. That way, we can be realistic and plan for research that meets our needs and fits within our budget.

The Best Personas Mix Qual and Quant

The most effective and useful personas often contain a mix of qualitative and quantitative data.

Qualitative data is a type of data that is based on observations, interviews, and experiences. It provides in-depth insights and personal perspectives on how people feel, think, and behave with regard to a particular topic or issue.

Qualitative data can be collected through direct conversations, as well as through focus groups, and structured interviews.

Qualitative research methods are used in order to understand the context behind why people do what they do rather than focusing on their behavior itself.

Quantitative data is typically numerical and is generated through measurement and counting. It can be collected using surveys, online polls, analytics software, or experiments.

Qualitative research methods are used to understand the context behind why people do what they do, while quantitative data provides information about size, amount, or frequency of certain behavior.

Quantitative data provides information about the size, amount, or frequency of certain behavior. It’s used to measure demographic information, user preferences, engagement levels, and choice of technologies.

Quantitative data focuses on the “how much” or “how many” aspects of user preferences and behavior. It can also provide insight into how trends change over time.

For example, it could be used to determine how many customers visited a store in a given month or how much money they spent there.

Compared to qualitative data, which provides more subjective insights, quantitative data gives us a more objective view of our customers and the market.

For instance, if we want to know what kind of products potential users prefer over others, then qualitative research would be able to provide actual feedback from customers about why they like certain products better than others, but quantitative research would give us an idea of how frequently certain products are purchased compared to others.

As you can see, the two types of data can work together to provide different perspectives on our users. They can also complement and support each other to give deeper insight into a specific preference or behavior.

Different Types of User Personas

All personas are similar in that they help us to understand our users. They differ because the person using them has different goals and therefore requires different types of information.

Here are a few of the more popular types of personas:

Accessibility Persona

An accessibility persona focuses on how people with physical, cognitive, or sensory disabilities use digital products. They help product teams understand user behaviors and preferences t create more accessible features and experiences for them.

UX Persona

A UX persona provides a detailed understanding of the motivations, goals, needs, skills, technology background, and other factors that influence a user’s behavior when interacting with a product or service. They’re used to make choices about what to design and how to design it.

Marketing Personas

A marketing persona is based on market research and help marketers understand customers’ desires, motivations, needs, and wants. They help marketers to write persuasive copy, choose the most appropriate communication channels, and create campaigns that resonate with the target audience.

Buyer Personas

A buyer persona is used to understand the buying behaviors of customers. They provide insight into which types of products people prefer, why, and how they make purchase decisions. Buyer personas can be used in marketing, product selection, and all aspects of a commerce business.

Best Practices for Creating User Personas

Identify Who Your User Groups Are

To meet the needs and expectations of your users. it’s important to identify who your potential user groups are. User groups refer to specific segments of your target audience that shares similar behaviors, needs, and motivations. You can identify your users by brainstorming what you already know about your users before going away and interviewing them to get deeper insights.

Conduct User Research to Gather Insights About Them

Once you’ve identified a few broad categories of users, it’s time to learn as much as possible about them. You should be looking for themes and patterns in their needs, expectations, and behaviors. These similarities and differences help you to identify segments and create different personas for people with different needs.

Synthesize Your Research, Find Themes, and Define the Segments

Once you’ve collected information about your target audience, you need to organize the information into a useful format that clarifies the differences and similarities between the groups. Affinity mapping can help us to spot themes and patterns before we create the segments and document who our different user groups are.

Capture Only Information Relevant to Your Project

Throughout your research, you should be focused on gathering useful information. Keep asking yourself, what’s interesting about this person? What does this tell me about their behavior, and how can I use this information to make decisions about how to design the product and user experience? By capturing the most useful and relevant information, you can focus on the things that matter most.

Tailor the Information to Your Specific Project Needs

If you’re working on a new content strategy or brochure website, then perhaps you want to focus on what information does the user need to complete their task. If you’re working on making improvements to a product to ensure it’s accessible and inclusive, maybe you could focus on what pain points people with additional needs have when using similar services. Personas can sometimes become so broad that they aren’t helpful, consider how to make them focused and useful.

Gather Additional Data to Support and Illustrate Your Segments

Now that you’ve identified your users conducted research, and decided on your user groups. Have a look a what other information the business may have that could be used to further illustrate your user personas. For example, what can customer service tell us about these different groups? What about the data and analytics team, or how about the marketing team? By collating all of this additional information, you can build out your personas to make them even stronger.

Produce a Series of Personas

From here, you need to take your research findings and create a series of personas that represent the full range of your user groups. Either use a persona template or create your own. Then go through all of the information and populate your template into a structure that’s useful for you and the unique needs of your project. Consider how many personas you need, how they relate to each other, and how they differ.

Share Them With Your Team

After the initial research has taken place, one of the primary purposes of user personas is to socialize your findings with the wider team. This is the job of the ux designer and the design team, to educate the team and the business about the real user. The more you can educate your team on the needs of the users, the better you’ll be able to collaborate and the more informed they’ll be when making decisions that will impact the user experience. Find ways to integrate the personas into the workflow, ideation sessions, initiation sessions, problem definition workshops, and anywhere else they can provide value.

Update Them Regularly

A persona is only as good as the research that supports it. From the moment a persona is created, they become more and more out of date as time passes. It’s important that you’re aware of how quickly your industry changes, what trends and seasons might affect your user’s needs and behaviors, and how you can continually update your personas to reflect those changes.

Key Takeaways

  1. User personas are a tool used to help design products that are more user-friendly. They can be costly and time-consuming, but without them the risk for product development increases.
  2. UX Personas provide in-depth insights into how people feel, think, and behave with regard to a particular topic or issue. 
  3. Qualitative personas give us insight into why customers think and act in the way that they do. They give us subjective, but valuable insight into user needs.
  4. A user persona should contain both qualitative and quantitative data in order to be most effective.
  5. It’s the job of the ux designer and the design team to educate the business on user behavior, design thinking, best practices, and what real person and target user needs from the user experience design.
  6. There are different types of personas depending on the goal of the user (e.g marketing persona, buyer persona). 
  7. The best way to create personas is by conducting user research beforehand in order to understand who your potential user groups are and what their needs may be.
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