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User-Centered Design Blog Series: Exploring UX Persona Research Methods

The heart of the persona dispute

Everyone can agree that personas are a critically useful tool to understanding your customer. But within the world of user-centered design (UCD), there have long been debates about how to create personas that work.

The very definition of a persona is a general representation of a target audience. But there is a fine line between storytelling and building a full picture of the customer through metrics, interviews, and research.

Among user experience (UX) experts, there is considerable debate over “the right way” to build user personas that most closely reflect the customer needs and motivations. For example, some UX pros create archetypal personas, which are almost fully fictional characterizations of customers. Created by assumptions and anecdotes of design and/or development team members, they are rarely rooted in data and facts.

The challenge is that fully or mostly fictionalized customer personas provide no insight into the buying habits and preferences of real customers. Why? Because the personas are not rooted in data that explains real customer impulses and desires.

Jim Williams, Ventera’s UX research lead, has a different view of how personas can be created to fuel user-centered design (UCD) design excellence: “Personas should deliver real, actionable insights in a symbolic structure.” Jim said, “although our aim is to base personas on real information and data points, the overall picture is symbolic. Our belief is that the information feeding the personas should be drawn  from real users’ details.”

Jim’s UX and UCD ethos mirrors Ventera’s persona approach. Over the years, he has often emphasized the importance of making the persona research phase of the design process a team effort. “UCD employs personas as a way to encourage the entire team to think about the users while they are planning and building feature,” he explained. “A conduit to user mindset, personas are specifically  helpful with feature prioritization.”


Personas and the Research Methods Behind Them

Because UCD teams approach the persona research process in different ways, personas can vary in value. Some personas are quite simple while others are complicated. Their level of complexity ties to their overall value. To help you explore persona research and the different values they yield, we have outlined several personal development research approaches. As you will see, there is a balance of fiction and fact in most. As the scale tips toward greater fact-based research, the complexity of the personas increases. But, so does their value.

Assumptive Personas

Assumptive personas are based on what team members already know or assume about the buyer or customer. They can be the product of two types of research, assumptive and workshop/template-based.

Assumptive Research

This approach to persona-making is the most simple, straightforward, and prone to stereotypes. While assumptive personas are a great starting point for those not familiar with more complicated persona-making methods, they have more potential to backfire and further reinforce false assumptions. Why?  Because these personas are based on things that you think you know as opposed to things that you  really do know. Assumptive personas will often provide less value to the business and product – mostly because the UCD team is not learning anything new as there is no actual conversation with the product users.

Workshop/Template-Based Research

Much like assumptive personas, template-based or workshop personas bring people together to write down general knowledge about the users. It’s also research that uses assumed insights as opposed to real user knowledge. The only difference in this approach is that the assumptions come from group thinking–an entire team participates. UX teams will then take those group assumptions to visualize  patterns or types of people through affinity mapping.

The most important benefit to this approach is that it can clarify some assumptions and share agreed-upon information across the team. And this approach can become even more successful if the team interacts with the users first. But, keep in mind, while there’s value in knowledge-sharing and building consensus, workshop-based personas sometimes reinforce incorrect perceptions.

Qualitative Personas

Qualitative personas are built from the contributions of many people. The more perspective, diversity,  and richness in the research, the better it will translate into personas that accurately reflect the user group. These personas are the product of either qualitative or outside research.

Qualitative Research

In qualitative research, UCD teams get a basic understanding of customers by having conversations with them and gathering feedback on a specific set of questions. These personas can range from the simple  to complicated, depending on the number of people surveyed and the number and complexity of  questions asked.

Outside Research

Supplementing the qualitative research, explained above, with outside research sources can add  additional value to personas., Academic research projects, for example, can be very thorough data sources that can provide the UX team with new knowledge, insights and data. Few UCD teams have the time or money to get to the deep levels of research that academic and research institutions can.

Mixed Methods Personas

At Ventera, while we have the skills and expertise to pursue various persona research methods, we  prefer to use a mixed-method approach, blending both qualitative and quantitative research. We know that incorporating customer information from many data sources and even deeper research leads to robust personas. These personas are the product of mixed-method, hierarchical, or statistical segmentation research.

Mixed Method Research

It’s not just about one specific research method here, you can add so much more into this research style. Mixed method persona research and building provides the UCD team with a better sense of where particular users are spread out across an entire population. Publicly available data sources that relate to the subject matter, like proprietary databases, can be easily accessed and used within this persona research.

Hierarchical Clustering Research

Another level of persona developing uses hierarchical clustering, which adds additional data to research,  like surveys, assessments, and online analytics to already utilized qualitative interviews. Hierarchical clustering research offers a data-driven perspective to qualitative research.

The most simple and straightforward approach to hierarchical clustering research would be to create a  dendrogram based on information from every source of user data. The dendrogram can then be used to create and define relevant clusters of characteristics as the basis of for personas.

Statistical Segmentation Research

Statistical segmentation research might be the most complex and elaborate but will almost undoubtedly uncover some new information or highlight previously unseen user data. Much of the time, these personas are based on surveys with many different, complex questions.


Rooted in Research

As proven through these research descriptions, there is value in rooting your persona research in data.  Jim Williams summarizes: “There is a subjective element in almost all research. Using quantitative methods helps to limit the influence of unintentional bias. By allowing us to work from larger amounts of information, individual anecdotes have less influence, and we have more accurate results.”

The next blog in our User-Centered Design Personas series will explore the value of UX personas in relation to their complexity. Want to know how Ventera’s UCD team researches their personas? Contact us today so we can answer your questions and provide you with the research, metrics, personas, and user experience you need.

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