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Defining personas that deliver genuine value

To build a product strategy that links user needs with organizational goals and communicates the real purpose of your product, you need a rock-solid understanding of who your users are, and exactly how your product can help them.

Last updated

7 Jan 2022
Team defining user persona

You could just ask a bunch of people what they might need from your product and try to fit all of their ideas into your backlog—but that wouldn’t be very effective. When you try to please everyone with your product, you usually end up pleasing no one.

Instead, research your users and craft a product persona—a detailed description of your user and what they wish to accomplish through your product.

Personas help your product team understand who your product is for so you can build features your users will love.

Here’s a look at personas: how to create them, how to use them, and how they help you understand your users and build a more successful product.

Ready to understand your users?

Create personas with product experience insights from Hotjar to understand your users and build a product they'll love. 

What is a product persona?

A product persona is a fictional example of product users, including their key behaviors, goals, and responsibilities. While a persona is not a real person, it represents the real people who use your product.

Alan Cooper, a software designer, developer, and the 'Father of Visual Basic', created personas as part of his overall goal-directed design approach for developing software. Here’s his original description of personas from Chapter Nine of his book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity:

“Personas are not real people, but they represent them throughout the design process. They are hypothetical archetypes of actual users. Although they are imaginary, they are defined with significant rigor and precision. Actually, we don't so much 'make up' our personas as discover them as a byproduct of the investigation process. We do, however, make up their names and personal details.”

So why should your product team develop and use personas? Let’s look at how personas can help you keep the right focus.

4 reasons product teams should develop personas

Product personas keep you focused on the key behaviors, goals, and responsibilities of the people who use your product. 

Here are four ways product personas help you stay focused and build better products:

1. Personas help you avoid designing for the generic user 

As we mentioned above, when you try to build a product that pleases everyone, you end up pleasing no one. You’re much better off when you can design a product that satisfies a user’s particular needs. 

Personas help you stay on track with your product strategy by focusing on the needs of the people that you set out to help in the first place, and preventing you from getting distracted with potentially conflicting demands.

2. Personas help you create understanding and empathy with the people who use your product

Even though personas are fictional, they represent the needs and expectations of real people

As you realize those needs and expectations, you’re more likely to see things from your user’s perspective. When you do that, you can better identify and empathize with your users and are more likely to create a product that satisfies their needs.

3. Personas help the product team discover solutions

People who use your product are experts in the problems they want to solve—but they're not necessarily experts in the best way to solve that problem. Personas help your product team synthesize the ideas of several users into the best solution for a given situation rather than becoming order-takers.

4. Personas help you make sure you’re not building for yourself

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you're an appropriate representation of your customer. You might think that if you use your product to solve a problem, then surely others will as well. 

Personas help you separate yourself from the issue. It’s no longer “I think people will want to use the product for this purpose because I would.” Now you can reason, “based on our research, Paula the product manager needs the product to do X.”

What do personas look like?

For personas to provide value to your product team, you need to make them visible. There are many different ways to develop a persona, and the best approach depends on your team and product. 

For example, product manager Kent McDonald once worked on a conference submission system, and he shared this persona example from that product:

#Reed The Reviewer from KBPMedia
Reed The Reviewer from KBPMedia

Whichever template or approach you choose to develop a product persona, some essential things to include are:

  • A name: giving your persona a name makes it more likely that your team will build more empathy with the persona (and your users). A name also makes it easier and more natural to refer to the persona when discussing the features they might want.

  • A photo: grab a stock photo or create a sketch. Either way, you get the advantage of having a face to go along with the name, making the persona more relatable.

  • Characteristics that impact their use of your product: identify some general characteristics or behavioral information that are important to consider when thinking about how they would use your product. For example, whether they have any accessibility needs, need to use your product only at a desk or on the go, and how familiar they are with technology in general. 

  • Goals, motivations, and pain points: what is the user trying to accomplish with your product, why do they want to achieve those things, and what obstacles get in their way? 

You may track other or additional pieces of information about your personas, like interests, values, or a day in the life of your user. Whichever details and information you choose to include, the goal is to help you build empathy with your users and make meaningful product decisions.

5 tips for building product personas

When you take an intentional approach to building personas, you’ll learn a great deal about your users that helps you build a product they'll love. 

The key is to back up persona creation with focused user research. Without research, you’ll end up creating personas based on your perception of your user’s goals and behaviors rather than what they are.

Here are five tips you can use to build a data-informed product persona. When you follow these tips you’ll gain empathy for your users and have a useful persona that your product team can refer to when making prioritization and design decisions.

1. Collect information about your users

Good personas are based on the stories of actual users, so a key step in creating a product persona is to collect information about your current users. You can get information about your users through interviews, surveys, and observing their actions.

When you conduct user interviews, go deeper than just finding out what activities your users perform—delve into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations when they perform those activities. The deeper you understand what your users are thinking and feeling and why they do what they do, the easier it is to see the world, or at least your product, through their eyes.

You can get to this level of information during user interviews by adding questions such as “what did you think when you did X with this product?” The downside to this approach is that the user may not accurately remember what they thought or felt when they used your product.

To get around that, observe people while they use your product and ask them to verbalize their thoughts as they perform certain actions. Set yourself up to watch their facial expressions as they use your product, which will provide insight into how your product makes them feel.

For an easier and faster alternative to interviews, use Hotjar Surveys to collect insight into your current and potential users' motivations. Ask them for more information about why they use your product or to identify obstacles they experience.

#An example of a Hotjar Survey
An example of a Hotjar Survey

2. Identify behavioral patterns from your research

After you’ve collected information about your users, it’s time to look for patterns in your research results. The goal here is to group similar people based on similar behaviors to identify potential personas

Also look for ways in which behavior differs between users. Those differences in behavior may be clues to who your personas are. 

Some examples of behavior patterns include:

  • Do they focus on one task at a time, or are they constantly switching from one task to another?

  • Do they poke around and try different approaches to figure out how to use your product, do they immediately search for help, or do they just stop and stare at your product?

  • If they are accessing your product from a computer, are they a keyboard, mouse, or trackpad person?

Use Hotjar Heatmaps to provide additional insights and complement the data you already have from your user research. Heatmaps show you where users, in aggregate, click, move, and scroll on your site and help you understand the most and least popular areas of a page.

#An example of a Hotjar Heatmap
An example of a Hotjar Heatmap

3. Identify your primary product persona

Most products can satisfy different needs for a variety of different people. Combine that with the fact that people using the same product can exhibit significantly different behaviors, and you’re likely to come up with multiple product personas.

But just because your product might be relevant to multiple personas, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should try to build your product for all of them. Remember: if you build a product for everyone, you’ll please no one.

Identify the one persona that represents the users you had in mind when you decided to build your product. Find the persona that is an example of the users who have the exact problem you set out to solve. This is your primary product persona. 

Refer to your primary product persona when you’re deciding whether to include a specific feature in your product—it's their behavior patterns that should guide your next steps. 

But wait: this doesn’t mean you only have one persona—there will still be secondary personas who use your product that you need to consider. These personas may represent people who use your product to help solve the primary persona’s problem, or people who use your product to solve related problems. 

A good practice to follow is to make your design decisions with primary personas in mind and test those decisions against your secondary personas. 

4. Find touchpoints during the customer journey

Once you know your primary product persona, plot out the customer journey map for them. 

Note specific touchpoints the persona has on that journey, such as when they first log in to your product, use a new feature, or need help with a particular step. Identify these touchpoints to understand how you expect users to interact with your product.

Use Hotjar Session Recordings to refine your understanding of how users interact with an existing product. Recordings are playbacks of individual users scrolling, moving, u-turning, and rage-clicking on your site. They let you follow the entire user journey on your site and build empathy with your users.

#A snapshot of a Hotjar Recording
A snapshot of a Hotjar Recording

Pro tip: an empathy map can help you improve and communicate your understanding of your users and provide input into creating your product personas.

An empathy map helps you categorize and make sense of your research notes, survey answers, and user interview transcripts. It gives you a better idea of your users’ attitudes and behaviors, which lets you form a clear picture of the product personas you need to work with.

To create an empathy map, gather your team (either in real life or virtually) and your research results, and write up real (or virtual) sticky notes with your observations and place them in the appropriate quadrants:

Says: what do users say during interviews, observation, or when answering a survey question? Whenever possible, note direct quotes from your research.

Example: “I don’t understand why I can’t export from here.”

Thinks: what do users think throughout the experience of using your product? Based on your research results, ask yourself what is the user thinking about? What matters to them? While it’s possible to have the same content in both the Says and Thinks quadrants, try to note the thoughts you expect users have that they're reluctant to share. 

Example: This is irritating.

Does: what actions did the users take? Did they hunt around your product before accomplishing their task, or were they able to find what they needed right away? Did they repeatedly click on a button when your product didn’t seem to respond?  Note your observations of the things your user physically did and how they went about doing it.

Example: Rage clicks on the submit button

Feels: what is the user’s emotional state? What seems to worry the user, what do they get excited about, and how do they feel about the product experience? This quadrant is often filled with an adjective followed by some context.

Example: Frustrated—the product doesn’t seem to respond

Once you have all the data points categorized, discuss the results as a team. What themes do you notice? Are there any of the quadrants without any observations? (That may be a sign that you need to do more research.) 

You can use the empathy map results to flesh out your product persona when you feel you have sufficient information in each quadrant. Use the content of the empathy map to add meaning to your persona description, especially when it comes to describing the characteristics of personas that are relevant to your product.

Empathy Mapping

5. Share the product personas with the product team

Once you’ve created your personas, it’s time to introduce them to your teams and organization. This includes the product team and stakeholders interested in the decisions that are made for your product, like people from marketing, sales, and operations.

To effectively introduce your personas, make them as concrete as possible: if your team is working together in person, you can use posters, action figures, and other physical objects to make your personas seem real. If your team is remote, create virtual posters or mock up a LinkedIn profile for your personas. The key is to make the personas seem like real people that your team refers to throughout their work on the product.

Another aspect of introducing personas to your team and stakeholders is explaining why you use them. Because personas are primarily a design technique, developers and your stakeholders may not know what they are and why your team should use them. So when you introduce your personas, you also need to explain what you use them for (basically to guide prioritization and design decisions for your product).

How product teams use personas

Just creating product personas isn't enough. Your personas should be your product team's constant companions. You should almost feel as if they're a part of your team—always there, guiding the decisions you make on a daily basis.

Here’s a look at how personas can help you prioritize and ensure your product design delights your users. 

Use personas to guide your prioritization decisions

The information contained in personas helps you make product prioritization decisions and is a valuable resource for backlog management. When creating your backlog items, identify which persona that backlog item is for. If you can’t link a backlog item to a persona, you might be able to remove that item from your backlog altogether.

Product personas help you focus on the groups of people you’re building the product for, and the jobs-to-be-done framework helps you understand what those product personas are trying to accomplish. Combine these two techniques to guide your product strategy and help you decide which metrics you’re trying to move.

Use personas to guide your design decisions

Personas provide you with insight into the people who will use your product so you can make design decisions that result in products that people find easy to use. 

Personas help you understand the environment in which people use your product, their comfort with technology, and any characteristics they may have that impact their use of your product.

Challenges to using personas effectively

Personas are a well-known technique that many product teams are aware of, but they might not be familiar with their practical uses. As a result, you run the risk of encountering the following challenges to using personas effectively:

Your team creates personas, but you don’t do anything with them

The challenge: you create your product personas, share them with your teams, and then never look at them again. This can happen when your team doesn’t know why or how to use personas to guide their priority and design decisions, or when they didn’t support creating personas in the first place. Your team may tolerate you putting the personas together, but show their displeasure or apathy by ignoring them. 

A solution: when you introduce your personas to the team, communicate why you have personas and what you’ll use them for. For example, explain that when the team discusses whether to build a new tool or feature, they should ask whether the primary persona would need or use it. Also, describe how the behaviors and characteristics described by the personas can help influence your product design and prioritization decisions.

You create personas without the appropriate research

The challenge: the personas come about as a result of brainstorming or some general discussions, but without significant data. As a result, the personas represent the cognitive biases of your team members rather than meaningful representations of actual users that can help the team prioritize and design features. This is a specific instance of one of the product management challenges: lack of research.

A solution: establish a clear plan for user research that includes surveys, user interviews, and observations to better understand your users. If you’re creating personas for an existing product, supplement these research activities with information about how users currently use your product.

You created personas in a silo

The challenge: you did user research to back up your product personas, but you didn’t involve the product team when you created them. So you have the personas, but everyone only sees the description without all the details that provide meaningful context. Without all that background, you lose buy-in. 

A solution: look for ways to involve the entire product team in user research. If you can't include everyone, involve (at least) a product trio—a product manager, product designer, and tech lead—in user research and creating the personas.

Final thoughts

Once you create your product personas, refer back to them regularly until your team members view them as real people and refer to them to prioritize brilliantly.

Product personas are a powerful way to understand and empathize with your users. With personas, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of your users so you can build a product you know they’ll love.

Ready to understand your users?

Create personas with product experience insights from Hotjar to understand your users and build a product they'll love. 

FAQs about product personas