8 Minutes Read | Communications

How We Went About User Persona Research – Step by Step Guide

Laura Francois

Head of Growth | Artisan & Fox

I remember the day Piktochart turned four and reached a new height of five million users worldwide. That’s more than the entire population of New Zealand or Costa Rica! It was certainly a milestone for us, and it was also something to celebrate!

But knowing that people in large numbers are indeed using our product, doesn’t answer the most important question to successfully continue on our journey:

“Who are they? And why are they using Piktochart?”

Knowing who those five million people were remained a giant question mark in our minds. In fact, we were building something in hopes that more people would use it instead of letting our users and who they were as people be our guides.

This is where user personas came in!

Who are the mysterious “personas”?

Personas typically help teams create something user-centric; they guide teams towards something based on real people’s behaviors, needs, goals and attitudes.

But these personas shouldn’t just help developers and designers make decisions by empathizing with the individuals using the product. Personas should also have a seat at the marketing table.

So, who is a persona?

A persona is a fictional, yet realistic, description of a typical or target user of the product. A persona is an archetype instead of an actual living human, but personas should be described as if they were real people.” – Aurora Harley, Nielsen Norman Group

When I first joined Piktochart, the team had already created a set of personas. But just as real people change over time, so do personas!

As we reach out to new users and release new features and products, the personas should continue to evolve. As a UX Researcher, it’s important to remember that the job is never quite done, and that there will always be more users to speak to and new trends to watch and adopt!

As we reach out to new users and release new products, the personas should always continue to evolveClick To Tweet

Introducing jobs-to-be-done

Boiling down five million users to a simple set of workable personas left me feeling uneasy. I wasn’t satisfied with the traditional method of persona creation, and I was afraid of ending up with an overgeneralized idea of who those people were.

When I first discovered the Jobs-To-Be-Done framework, fireworks went off in my brain! For the first time, I understood how we might be able to create usable personas that properly represented such a huge group of users.

The Jobs-to-be-done framework helps create usable personas that properly represent large user groups.Click To Tweet

Traditional personas typically go into depth about that person’s daily life in hopes that it will give insight into their behavior and needs:

Do they have a family? Do they drive a car? What did they eat for breakfast? What color are their socks?  

The Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD) framework pushes most of those details aside to ask one very important question:

What did this person hire Piktochart to do?

Understanding what job users need to have done brings us right to the core of the pain point we’re trying solving. It also opens the door for whatever else we might be able to design or create to get that job done. This approach focuses on the specific situation and motivation that lead a person to our product, instead of focusing on whether they love cats or dogs!

jobs to be done user story Source: Jobstobedone.org


Bonus: If you need to convince or inform your colleagues about the JTBD framework, here’s a presentation I used at Piktochart to introduce it!


How to Conduct Persona Research

If all this persona talk has you scratching your head wondering about how to go about it, don’t worry! Here are some basic steps to help you visualize the process and get started!

Research Preparation

Before diving into the JTBD user research, it was important for me to fully understand what I was getting myself into. User interviews can be a crazy, eye-opening experience, or they can be a waste of time for you and the user.

Recruiting has a lot to do with the success of these interviews, but it’s also on the shoulders of the UX researcher to create a framework for the questions and understand what direction they want to take.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t get off track a little bit! Having an open mind during these interviews is key, as long as you know when to start sailing back on course.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

Create a template for your user’s job story

I simply followed this template from Jtbd.info:

Jobs to be done interview template

Draft a script

Start each phone call or Skype interview with a clear idea of the information you seek, and don’t be afraid if the conversation doesn’t unfold the way you thought it would. In fact, it’s most important to listen actively to what your user is saying rather than fishing for the answers you expect.

Know what kind of information you want to get during user interviews, but listen actively & don’t try to influence the answers.

Having a set of written questions allows you to let the conversation evolve naturally while keeping an eye on how it might relate to your original plan.

The JTBD question framework prompted me to ask the specifics about the exact moment the user decided to create a Piktochart account:

Was it raining that day? Do they remember where they were sitting?

These questions help the user place the events in real time, retrieving those memories so that you can dig a bit deeper. Here are some of the most important ones:

questions to ask during user persona interviews

Recruiting the “right” users

We didn’t want our user personas to only represent users who adored Piktochart. We wanted to make sure we were representing our very active users as well as the more occasional ones.

By doing research this way, the marketing team could work on ways to keep the latter group more engaged!

When doing a user persona research, focus not only on your brand evangelists, but also on your less active users to get valuable ideas and insight.Click To Tweet

Find your target

Recruiting can be a pain, especially if you target the wrong people. Thanks to tools like Intercom, I was able to search for users who hired us to get the job done.

I split our users up into groups based on their activity:

  • Very active users – those who created projects once a day
  • Very inactive users – those who only logged into their accounts every few months

I targeted each of these segments differently to maximize the potential of users responding to my interview request. For example, I used Intercom in-app messaging for active users (like the one below) and emails for others.

User Persona Interviews email invite

If you don’t have access to Intercom or something similar, I would suggest sending a short survey (Typeform is my personal favorite) to filter out users who might be inactive, who don’t speak your language, or who don’t own a phone!

Tip: check out Mozilla’s toolkit for recruiting!

Set yourself up for success

After all your hard work in finding the right user to talk to, make sure your efforts don’t get flushed down the drain by double-booking yourself or having your user forget his or her appointment!

Simple tools like Calendly for scheduling reminders and Evernote for note-taking and data segmentation became my best friends.

Making sense of your research

I often get hit with the question “How many users should I interview?” and “What number is the right number?” . The truth is, I have no idea. But what I’ve learned is that patterns are key.

For this research, I drew out the JTBD user’s journey on scrap paper for each and every interviewee. Then, I segmented any part of their journey that stood out to me on post-it notes and proceeded to cover the entirety of our meeting room’s walls with them like this:

make sense of your research

Drafting out the job story after each interview is a great way to visualize what your user is really telling you about adopting your product.

Tip: Check out these tips on how to create these stories.

Find the pattern

After 18 interviews or so, I began to clearly see a pattern. The types of circumstances and behaviors that led to a user converting from a visitor to a user, or from a free user to a paying user, would result in a persona. I continued interviewing until each pattern was different enough from one another, resulting in eight user personas.

user personas Piktochart Validate each persona

Eight might seem like a crowd, but some of the personas were clearly our “key players”. For example, Emily and Richard might be very similar personas but Emily is a paying user compared to Richard’s free subscription. This is a remarkably important distinction.

The marketing team might refer to Parker when discussing conversion rates from free to pro, and they might about Julie as an example of what worked!

Name your persona

Once you’ve created your persona’s profiles, it’s time to bring them to life by naming them! It’s important to pick names that have little association with anyone or anything in your office. You wouldn’t want your developer to think of his mother, Nancy, every time you use your personas!

That being said, try not to use obscure names that no one will remember. These personas are meant to remind your team about a certain type of user, so create names that start with the same letter as the habit or behavior you’re harnessing works well. For example, Communication Cathy or Designing David.

For inspiration, I researched the most popular names in 2012 (the year Piktochart was born!) and went from there.

Introducing your personas

Get the buy-in from the teams by involving them early on

Throughout the interview process, I would introduce important takeaways from our users at our weekly morning meetings.

I called it “Humans of Piktochart”, a spinoff of Humans of New York, and I provided a glimpse into some important patterns that were emerging from the many calls I made that week. It looked like this:

Humans of Piktochart poster

Source: Humans of Piktochart | Template used: Profile

This provided buy-in from our teams and allowed everyone to experience the same “Aha!” moment as I did during my discussions with users.

Pitch your personas to everyone throughout your organization

After months of user interviews, hundreds of post-it notes,  and countless hours of data sifting, I was thrilled to introduce our personas to the rest of the team!

I can’t stress how important this part is to the success of your personas. At the end of the day, they are simply fictional characters on a sheet of paper unless your team includes them in their process.

Meeting with team leaders and product managers to walk them through the new personas was key as each of them helped integrate the personas into product development and strategies looking forward. In hindsight, I could have brought these key players into the research process to help them gain a fuller understanding of the origins of the personas.

Include them in the daily work life

There are a million different ways to use personas around the office. You could print out posters with their photo and quotations, or you could even set up a desk space for them to “use”. Anything that helps bring them into your team’s process is helpful.

I created short recaps of each persona and printed them out to include them in our Design Sprints. They looked like this:

user persona poster

Piktochart template used: Profile Introduction

This way, anytime we grab our Sharpies, timers, and post-its to facilitate a Sprint, the personas can come along for the ride!

Key Takeaways

To sum it all up, the main things I learned throughout this process were:

  1. Check out JTBD – If your target audience is as varied as it is large, consider trying the Jobs to be Done model to create personas.
  2. Recruit well – Reserve time to recruit the ‘right’ user for your research. Spending time here will save you time in the long run by ensuring you have quality results to work with.
  3. Look for similarities – Keep your eye out for patterns. Whenever you speak to users, keep your eyes peeled for recurring data. But always make sure to dig a little deeper and validate!
  4. Educate – Bring your team into the process of making these discoveries! It helps create buy-in and a smoother transition to using the personas.
  5. Don’t forget – Keep personas present at work every day and make a habit of incorporating them into your marketing strategy and product development process

User persona research things to know

I became quite attached to the eight personas and it felt bittersweet to bring our private synergy to an end! However, witnessing Piktochart teams including the personas in decision making was extremely rewarding for me.

After a month or so, when the novelty of the new tool wore off, it served as a reminder to me that keeping the personas top of mind was almost as big of a challenge as creating them! Planning ahead on how you’ll keep the personas alive at the office, assembling product managers and team leaders to advocate for the tool as well as continuously addressing any confusion or pain points about their usage is key to a happy ending!

How do you go about your persona research? Do you do anything differently? Let us know in the comments below!

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