31st October 2014

The differences between profiles and personas in understanding user behaviour

Mike Jongbloet
Head of Design and UX

As an agency, evidence is at the heart of everything we do. Understanding users, their needs and why they behave in certain ways, is an essential part of our process.

The quality of this understanding is really important. But before we examine whether you need to carry out research or not, let's take one step back.

What are personas?

A persona is a representation of a subset of your users who show similar behaviours and patterns in the way they use your service, whether it's an e-commerce shop or a software platform.

Personas are a useful tool for designing and validating a web design project as they:

  • Keep your architecture and design decisions rooted in the needs of users
  • Can stand in as a proxy when user testing is not possible
  • Help project teams understand who they are designing for
Woman on iPad

Developing personas

Personas are developed through deep research of the target audience using techniques such as user interviews, contextual enquiry and observation.

Sometimes you cannot interact with users for reasons beyond your control, such as language barriers or privacy reasons.

Does this mean that you can't create useful personas, or should alternative methods be used?

The power of personas

Personas help you make and validate design decisions because they reflect your real users and not your assumptions.

User research

Direct research with users helps you test and validated any assumptions you have about user behaviour and whether you can influence behaviour change.

When you use data which isn't based on real users to develop personas, their value is only as good as the assumptions that inform them. It does introduce risk.

Naming conventions

Be careful what you call target audiece profiles. It's misleading to call them personas and it can erode the value of your evidence-based personas. We advise keeping the distinction clear between evidence-led personas and those determined through other means.

I've seen personas without research called 'proto-personas', 'lightweight personas', 'ad-hoc personas' and 'user profiles'.

What can we do without access to users?

When we can't get access to users, how can we keep user focus without a real persona?

There are ways we can get as close as possible to a persona and still add value to the project, although we need to keep in mind It might be less accurate than first-hand research.

Train those who can help

If access is restricted or language is a barrier, you might be collaborating with someone who can help.

In these cases, we've trained our clients to conduct the research with a workshop, briefing and clear research structure. It's not first hand, but audio recording and transcripts can provide valuable insight into users.

Talk to the people close to the customers

In a web design project it's likely your main contact on the client side is a director of business, marketing or technical.

They are often a useful source of information, but for raw information try talking to the staff who come into regular contact with customers, such as sales or call centre teams. They can offer far deeper insight into customer needs and behaviour which you can use to your advantage.

Matching profiles

When access is difficult, you might want to profile users to the best of the client's knowledge and then match similar people fit the profile and conduct research with them.

Profiles are not a replacement for personas

We've given some ideas of how to work around personas when research is difficult or impossible.

It goes without saying that first-hand research will always be more accurate than second hand information but creating ‘lightweight personas' still provide a way to get teams thinking about users and will add value to your design work.