by Theresa Putkey

Creating user personas is a fantastic way to get stakeholders to focus during design and content creation. You’re not just designing or writing for people who like… well, everything… you’re designing for that particular someone who likes to do something particular.

I always say, “Ask for what you want and you’ll get it. If you don’t ask, people won’t know what you want.” This article is for designers and writers looking to create more effective designs and write more effective content.

For designers, whether they be information architects, interaction designers, visual designers, if we don’t know what the user wants, then we can’t know what is important in the design, what takes priority, and what the focal points should be.

For content strategists, personas inform the content needs of the users. You can use personas to tell you what things users are looking for, and you can ensure each content need is met on the applicable pages or other types of content being created. Personas might help you determine the editorial calendar: perhaps users need to know different things at different times.

What is a persona?

A persona is a single, fictitious person who represents the needs and wants of many people. This representation has been created by information gathered during user and stakeholder interviews. Personas are a great way to focus the design and to resolve design disputes. The team can focus on concrete people and, when questions arise, they can be asked and answered based on persona needs.

Personals are Built from User Interviews

Personas are built based on user interviews. Whether with a new or existing product, you’ll need to identify different types of people who may use the website or software, then line up interviews with those types of people. If you’re just starting off on the design and interviews, your questions might tend to be more general. If you’re further into the design work or into writing the content, your questions might be more specific and get into more process.

How Does a Persona Help Us Focus?

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Don’t let naysayers cause you to lose focus. Use personas to keep focus on the user.

In “Making Personas Work for Your Website: An Interview with Steve Mulder”, Mulder communicates the purpose of personas:

“The main thing a persona allows designs teams to do is to think outside themselves and really get an understanding of who it is they are designing for. When design teams build a persona, they write a story about a character that represents a whole type of user that is fundamentally different from themselves. They put themselves in the shoes of their users and think about how the persona would interact with a web site or design.”

Have you ever been in a meeting where someone in the room says, “I don’t like this design/content. I mean, my mom doesn’t use this kind of thing, she uses this other thing, so I don’t think this is important.”

That’s the classic way to take design and content off-track. It’s kind of the one-two punch that usually leads from “I don’t like this aspect” to “Let’s rethink the design/content.” Nip that second-guessing in the bud by returning to the personas. Personas help the team focus on the people using the product. The conversation can be directed away from that person’s mom and onto the persona with some form of this sentence, “I understand your point and see that you’re concerned about this aspect of the design/content, but I want to make sure we’re designing for the personas. Our research and our personas tell us that this design/content is important…”

Going Without User Interviews

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Sometimes, you may have to create personas based on second-hand information instead of actual interviews

I’ve worked on “user centred design” projects where user interviews were not allowed. It was the second in a series of projects, each building on the last. For the first project, we had personas, but they were specific to that specific project. For the second project, there was a complete turnover in the team (which also meant educating the new people about UX), and it was determined that the personas for the first project would suffice for the second and user interviews would not be done. Despite my efforts to educate, the conservative client didn’t want people to know about their project and didn’t want me doing interviews.

As a UX professional, it was tough to hear that the work I was recommending wasn’t valuable enough, but it also meant that the second project would lack focus. The user interviews wouldn’t be done and the personas wouldn’t be updated. How do we move forward and deal with this refusal?

In “Making Personas Work for Your Website: An Interview with Steve Mulder”, Mulder also says:

“I think personas not based on actual user research are absolutely better than no personas at all.  A lot of customer and user knowledge already exists in many organizations, and by looking at the sales, marketing, product, customer support, and tech support perspectives, you can bring all these existing bits of knowledge together into personas without talking to any actual end user.”

In this case, turn around the refusal of no user interviews by asking for second-hand information. Companies might feel more comfortable giving this information, since it may be readily available.

As content strategist, although you ideally may want to be in at the beginning of the project, some companies just aren’t organized enough or have just learned about content strategy and are bringing you in late in the process. When this happens, you may not be able to do more user interviews if the business analyst has done stakeholder interviews and the UX professional has done user interviews. To make the most of it, try to interview the business analyst and UX professional, read the interview write ups to see what other points you can glean, then look at other secondary sources. Create more content-strategy centric personas if you need to.


Designers, whether they be information architects, interaction designers, visual desigers, design for tasks and scenarios based on personas. When we know what specific types of people need, we can create effective designs. We can create taxonomies, metadata and site maps with terms matching the persona’s expectations.

Content strategists can use personas to inform the content needs on the site as well as the editorial calendar. Personas tell you what knowledge users are looking for and you can ensure each need is met on the site. When you can’t do interviews, use the existing personas and fill them out more to meet your content strategy needs.

About the Author

Theresa is an independent information architect living in Vancouver, Canada. She works for clients designing and implementing large content management systems helping them with user interviews, information requirements, taxonomy, metadata, site maps, wireframes. A recent interest has been fitting UX into the Agile process.

She was a technical writer for 6 years before becoming an information architect and has sympathy for anyone needing to write content for small or large organizations. She is currently working on her Masters of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University, an online program.

You can contact Theresa via email at, via Twitter @tputkey, or on the web at