Why User Personas Often Fail in User Experience Design

Why User Personas Often Fail in User Experience Design

Sally Soccer Mom. Ed the Exec. Gerald the Geriatric. Anyone who’s ever dealt with user personas like these — whether in a consultant or marketing meeting, or in a user experience meeting — knows this tactic is a real crowd pleaser. Caricaturized versions of your users are certain to delight the inner child in us all, and there’s an irrefutable logic to what the process represents: an understanding of who your customer or user is.

Importance of User Personas in User Experience
User personas can be a great way to summarize your users, but there are pitfalls in the creation process.

Yet, if so many user experience designers are taking the pains to understand their users (and their preferences), why are there so many apps that go live, only to be unceremoniously panned by their users?

The reason why so many apps fail to reflect their users’ true needs is quite simply because app designers, including many mobile app development agencies, don’t actually know how to create user personas.

Let me clarify. Sure, they can come up with great names like “Ted the Teacher” and “Chris the Cop” and create colorful depictions to impress colleagues and clients. But what data are they actually considering in constructing those segments, and consequently, just how representative are these caricatures of the actual user base?

User Personas Represent Groups of People (not Distinct Individuals)

“I was just on the phone with a user who said they didn’t have a need for that new feature. Let’s remove it from our roadmap.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard marketers or product managers take a single or a handful of data points they’ve come across in discussions with users, and make broad generalizations (and decisions) using just those anecdotes. Obviously, this approach can be dangerous if those anecdotes do not represent the sentiments of the user base.

Detailed User Personas Expanded
The colorful depictions in user personas can be extremely powerful, but are only useful if they are based on trends that exist in the user data.

Similarly, when building user personas for user experience design, it’s a common pitfall to rely on anecdotal information. Rather, look at all the available data in aggregate when constructing your personas – not just a handful of interesting individual customers/users that you think capture the essence of your “best-guess” personas.

How exactly can you do this? The process might differ depending on the user data you have available.

Don’t have a user base (yet)? Use primary research

Many startups find themselves in a situation where they are creating an app for a user base that does not yet exist. In this situation, how do you go about creating user personas?

The key is to obtain relevant data, even if anonymized, that lets you add structure to your process where there was previously none. This could be as simple as creating an online survey you administer to audiences you think would be interested in your app – some thoughts follow below:

Sample survey questions:

App-specific questions

o   On a scale of 1-5, how likely are you to use (YOUR APP IDEA)? This question helps you separate likely users of your apps from those who are unlikely to use your app – you will only consider responses from people who choose a “4” or “5” here.

o   If you were to use an app like (YOUR APP IDEA), please rate the importance of the following features (on a scale of 1-5). Here you will list the features or user experience factors you require quantitative feedback on, allowing respondents to provide a rating for each item you’d like to inquire about

Demographic questions. You will ask demographic questions, as these will allow you to cross-analyze the responses and ultimately create user personas based on this information.

o   What is your age group?

o   What is your gender?

o   What is your income level?

o   What level of education have you attained?

o   Etc.

Behavioral questions. You will ask behavioral questions, as these will allow you understand how other behaviors interact with respondents’ user experience preferences.

o   On average, how many hours do you spend using mobile apps each week?

o   What other apps do you use on a regular basis? (Select all that apply)

o   Etc.

The example approach provided above is just for illustration purposes; you’ll want to tailor your questions and approach for your business. In some cases, you might invite a subset of respondents to participate in an onsite focus group, where you can follow up with interactive user experience research or observation.

Creating user segments from the data

Startups that follow a primary research approach like the one outlined in the previous section can get onto the same playing field as companies with an established customer/user base. The next step once you’ve got the data is to analyze and process it into meaningful user segments – from which the colorful user personas you know and love will emerge.

For businesses with robust user data, there are technical data analysis methods that can help create these meaningful segments. Using a method such as k-means clustering, you can analyze your user data across any number of attributes and create user segments based on the degree to which customers are clustered together. Below, you can see a sample visual output from a k-means cluster analysis:

K-means Clustering

(source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K-means_clustering)

Once you’ve created data-driven user segments, you can look at the mean/median/mode values for key user characteristics in each identified segment – for example, average age, household income, media consumption, education level, gender, etc. — and finally translate these into the colorful user personas your fellow stakeholders will adore.


Whether you’re creating mobile apps or other products for a startup or an enterprise, user personas are only as valuable as the data behind them. Make sure you’ve got all the relevant user data from which you can construct actionable user segments and personas using a method that makes sense for your business. Following this approach will empower your team to deliver products that your users will love.