Create Empathy And Understanding For Your Audience With Personas

Poets can’t wash up. Novelists go to bed early. Script writers drink a lot.

When I worked at the writers’ centre we used to play a game categorising different writers by their faults, habits and tendencies. We had a thousand writers stay each year, and over a few years we could spot clear patterns. It was just for fun — and useful for planning washing up rotas — but if you really want to understand your audience you need more than glancing generalisations.

Personas or pen portraits are based on genuine and verifiable user research. If you want your creations, products and services to be used by real people you need to understand what they’re really like — without bias and prejudice (sorry poets).

Over the past few years personas have escaped from the marketing department and can be found in product development and digital teams. I use them in innovation for generating ideas — giving people a concrete example of who they are solving a problem for unlocks not just creativity but creates a sense of purpose and mission.

You are not your User

If you’re creating something you need to understand that you are not your user. Your likes and dislikes, needs and wants, attitudes and behaviours, will differ from your audience.

I spoke recently to a games designer whose team was made up of single, male coders straight out of university. Their audience was 40-something females with children. To help them understand their audience they used a persona called ‘Barbara’. Whenever they were planning new features or prioritising their development roadmap they would ask ‘would Barbara like it?’. That meant celebratory gun fire and explosions were replaced by champagne and confetti. ‘Barbara’ loved it and engagement shot up — like a firework rather than a missile.

The Low Down on Personas

A persona isn’t a real person, but a fictional, generalised version created from user research. There isn’t a strict checklist of sections, but they typically have a photo at the centre, with a name and key demographics. They’re often presented on one page so you can see at a glance the key characteristics — and are also handy to pin on an office wall or share in workshops on slides or posters.

Sections could include:

  • Demographics including age, gender, location, education and family.
  • Job title, role details, key information about the company they work for and salary.
  • Hobbies, media preferences, technology, how they spend their spare time.
  • Primary and secondary goals and how you can help them achieve these.
  • Primary and secondary challenges and how you can help them solve these.
  • Values and fears.

Some personas might include a one line elevator pitch, marketing message or a genuine quote from the primary research. The idea is to make them feel alive so you know exactly what your persona wants and likes.

How to Build a Persona for your Audience

Research agencies charge a small fortune for developing personas. While these are the gold standard, you don’t have to wait until you have the marketing budget — involving a team in creating them is a great way to build engagement with your audience. Here are some ideas of how to go about it.

The starting point is genuine user research, without which you risk stereotyping people and making dangerous assumptions. There are lots of different ways to gather insight on your target audience. For example:

  • Customer interviews — this is the best method. Yes, interviewing is a skill that takes years of practice, but if you create an interview template you could get each team member to talk to one or two customers and share what they learnt.
  • Customer feedback — whether you have a formal feedback process or not, you’ll be able to find complaints, reviews and anecdotal comments knocking round the office.
  • Social media profiles — ‘stalk’ your customers by checking their public profiles and find out what you can from online forums. There’s a huge amount of rich detail publically available (and there’s no need to be creepy).
  • Google analytics provides all sorts of demographic data. Use other profiling tools to help you understand who and where your audience is and what they do and want.

Then, come together as a team to share your insights. I use a very simple grid to do this, drawn on a piece of flipchart paper. The four sections are:

  1. Name
  2. Facts
  3. Behaviours
  4. Needs and goals

Write quotes and evidence from the research on to post-it notes. As a group stick them on the sections — you might have 10, 20 or even 30 in each section. Then prioritise the top five. Debate is all part of the process, so this might take a while!

You might find you have more than one persona — but you should only generate a couple of personas — a primary and a secondary one.

I love doing this exercise in workshops; it creates a real sense of focus for idea generation, brings a team together and generates warmth and empathy for the people you are creating for.

Originally published at




Author of How to Have a Happy Hustle, founder Prolifiko writes about innovation, creativity, philosophy, productivity & writing.

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Bec Evans

Bec Evans

Author of How to Have a Happy Hustle, founder Prolifiko writes about innovation, creativity, philosophy, productivity & writing.

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