The Elements of a Persona

A persona is a research-based document that describes a typical person that you’re targeting or who uses your product.


A persona summarizes all of your research findings (from interviews, surveys, etc.) into one single page. You may have many personas if you have a variety of user types (ex. Media, Congress, Mothers, Auto-mechanics, etc). We like personas because they succinctly help the whole team get their heads around who we’re actually designing for. For more history on personas and their usage, check out Alan Cooper’s The Origin of Personas.

Why Do I Need a Persona?

All the work that we do should be focused around your audiences and informed by the audience research. We can’t emphasize this enough!

The Top 3 Reasons Why Your Project Needs a Persona:

  1. Personas summarize audience details and allow us to design for their needs. Projects succeed when audiences are clear and defined.
  2. By understanding your audiences, we can identify ways to best engage your audiences. If we can understand what motivates them, we can better engage them.
  3. Personas can be used to give everyone on the project team (including you!) a shared understanding of an audience type. We’ve had clients enlarge personas and hang them in the office hallways to promote everyone’s understanding.

Ultimately, personas summarize our audience research into distilled portraits and provide a foundation from which we can make informed design decisions.

Why Do Personas Fail?

We’ve seen personas fail for two reasons:

  1. There is no audience research to support the personas. That means that no interviews, surveys, usability testing, etc. were conducted. Personas are the most robust when we are able to conduct interviews to gather real data about your audience types. This means we need to gather data from multiple people: people who you are actually targeting. Personas aren’t meant to be the description of one person, but rather a fictional representation of the users who relate to your organization or use your organization’s websites in the same way. If we’re unable to connect with actual people from your audience groups, the resulting personas will not be as useful.
  2. Your audiences are not specific enough. The “general public” is not a helpful or descriptive audience group. If you target everyone, you actually target no one. Personas provide the most value when you narrow in on your target and focus on the specific needs of a smaller audience group.

How to remedy these issues: invest in audience research! You’ll always learn something new, get great quotes, and have a better grasp on what people need. Don’t be afraid to narrow in! By designing toward a more specific audience group, you can be much more focused and purposeful with your design. If you’re unclear as to what your audience may be motivated by, or what their needs and concerns are, personas will be especially useful for your organization.

The Elements of a Persona

Meet James! We’ll walk through the elements of a persona using James as an example. Let’s get started!


1. Personal Information

  • Example: James, 41 years old, Journalist, Washington DC.
  • What it is: This is basic background information about your audience. The information that we like to collect includes:
    • Name
    • Gender
    • Age
    • Occupation/Company
    • Location
    • Photo
  • Why include: We want these personas to feel like they’re about real people. By providing a name, a photo, and other personally identifying information, we can bring these personas to life.

2. Description

  • Example: James writes for a major metropolitan newspaper. He covers issues pertaining to health care policy locally and nationally. Lately he’s been particularly interested in how states are using healthcare data to improve outcomes.
  • What it is: A short explanation of who the audience is, what they do, and what their main focus is.
  • Why include: The description provides context about what the person cares about or focuses on. We need to know this in order to understand how the item we’re designing (website, product, etc) fits into their larger experience).

3. Motivation

  • Example: Along with all his other deadlines, James has an article due tomorrow on how states publish and use of health data, the good and the bad. He’s reaching out to think tanks and major healthcare data groups to get a their thoughts on this issue.
  • What it is: A brief explanation of what’s driving the audience’s actions and choices.
  • Why include: To explain why your audience does what they do with your organization.

4. Main Quote

  • Example: “I need an expert that I can speak to about this. Who can I contact right now?”
  • What it is: A compelling quote that summarizes what this person’s immediate needs or perspective is.
  • Why include: The quote and the photo in a persona are often the most memorable. These elements make the persona more human and give a greater sense of who you’re designing for.

5. Goals

  • Example: James wants to compare and review how different states and healthcare companies are improving their health outcomes through the use of data. He has the data, but needs to get the perspective of experts in the field.
  • What it is: The top three to five things that this audience needs to accomplish. These are the high level goals that they have: to view, find, compare, choose, promote, sign up, identify, donate, purchase, review, etc.
  • Why include: By including this information, we’ll be able to know if and how your audience is successful.

6. Concerns

  • Example: James is concerned the healthcare data he’s finding may not be accurate. James is worried that the piece won’t come together quickly enough. James is also very frustrated that the think tank he wants to speak with doesn’t have their press contact listed clearly anywhere.
  • What it is: The top three to five worries that this audience has. These are the potential issues that could impact their success.
  • Why include: By including this we’ll know what your audience’s potential blockers are.

7. Primary Needs

  • Example: James needs to have access to a database of healthcare data for various geographic areas so that he can download the data and run his own reports. James needs contact information for the people who publish the data, so he can confirm his assumptions. James needs contact information for experts in the field to understand the opportunities and risks around healthcare data usage.
  • What it is: The top three to five needs that this audience has. These are the necessary things they must have in order to complete their goals: “I need to have access to XYZ. I need to have this information on XYZ. I need to be able to do XYZ.”
  • Why include: This is important to include to ensure that we provide your audiences the resources they have to have to accomplish their goals.

8. Feelings

  • Example: James is disappointed/frustrated to see that there is not enough data for him to discern if there’s been any improvement in health outcomes for these states.
  • What it is: The emotions you want your audience to feel about your organization or the tasks they have to do with your organization. These can be pulled from the Know, Feel, Find, Act Activity.
  • Why include: Providing your audience’s feelings allows us to empathize with the audience and anticipate their attitude.

9. Additional Quotes

  • Example: “I honestly think that this data is reported in a very confusing way and it is too time-consuming for me to parse through it. I want to be able to get my research done quickly and simply!”
  • What it is: Ideally these are quotes that we can pull from our audience research, especially interviews. These quotes may answer questions such as what does your audience want, questions they have, or any opinions they may have about your organization/website, etc.
  • Why include: The quotes are the actual feedback from your audiences about their experience with your organization. Including these quotes gives us a very detailed perspective about important tasks and problems.

Much More

We’ve covered the main elements of a persona, however personas vary widely depending on what information you deem to be important or relevant to your organization. Here are a few other ingredients that we sometimes include in our personas:

  • Tech Savviness / Internet Usage
  • Familiarity with Your Brand
  • Brands Owned and Used
  • Social Media Usage
  • Favorite Apps
  • Communication Preferences
  • Personality Traits
  • Skills
  • Background / Experience
  • Likes / Dislikes
  • Values
  • Influencers
  • Habits

Free Persona Worksheet

We recommend compiling this information into a spreadsheet before you jump into creating your persona. This will allow you to check that you’ve gathered all the information you need and compare the differences and similarities between your audiences. We’ve included a worksheet for you to use if you’re interested in following our persona model! Access the free Persona Content Worksheet!

What Does a Persona Look Like?

You may be wondering what a finished persona looks like, too. There are many layouts and designs that have been posted so you can look to those for inspiration or create your own! Here’s one that we made:


In Summary

Once we’ve gathered all the necessary information about your audiences, we compile it into personas that you’ll be able to reference again and again. By understanding these basic elements for each of your audiences, you’ll have a clearer picture of how to successfully meet each of your audience’s needs and help them to succeed.

If you’re interested in developing personas for your audiences, please reach out to us! We’d love to dive into audience research with your organization and develop insightful personas!

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