How to create user personas that deliver real value

How to create user personas that deliver real value

Empathy Mapping

There are plenty of prescriptions for persona creation, but many of them just don’t work. In an exclusive excerpt from his new book ‘Think First’, Joe Natoli explains how you can delve deeper to get into the heads of your personas.

This is a condensed extract about creating personas from a chapter of Joe Natoli’s book ‘Think First’ that he’s generously allowed us to re-publish. Scroll to the bottom for an exclusive discount for UX Mastery readers.

Making ‘use scenarios’ contextual with personas

Remember the goofy little heads I drew in the diagram? Those are the people using what we’re designing here, and as I think you know by now, your most critical task is to understand them. What they need to do, why they’re motivated to do it and how they expect things to happen.

One of the ways you make this picture clearer is by creating a contextual persona for each user.

There are plenty of prescriptions for persona creation, but they’re all essentially the same: laundry lists that suggest it’s possible to understand a person’s motivation — and create an accurate, useful user persona — simply by checking boxes and asking questions related to behavior.

This is not that, because that, in my experience, doesn’t work.

So instead, I’m going to give you a simple, practical process and two companion templates that will put you on the path to creating user personas that deliver real value to your design approach. I’m going to show you the best way I know to get a true understanding of a user that is formed by the messy realities of what it’s like to be human.

There are two key steps in this process:

  1. First, you have to understand the person’s context and develop empathy for them. Empathy goes far beyond demographics, likes, dislikes, job roles and responsibilities. Empathy is about understanding the emotional drivers that affect the user’s behavior, because emotion will trump intellect in almost every situation users find themselves in. Design for the emotion and you’re truly designing for a person — instead of a collection of possible attributes.
  2. Next, you have to uncover that person’s behavioral attributes and motivations, in the context of multiple situations. What has the person just done or just finished doing when they encounter your product (site, app, tool)? What are they thinking and feeling at that moment, and how does that affect what they see and how they act? What stress is present in that situation, and how does it affect the person’s perception and action?

Persona creation happens immediately

I want to be clear that I explore both of the areas noted above before any face-time with users. Before I read any usage data the client has for me. Before I hear from stakeholders what people are having trouble with or are complaining about.

The minute you have any of that input, your perception of who that user is has been irrevocably tainted.

That’s not your fault; it’s how your brain is designed to work. Once you have those conversations, you will have pre-determined ideas about what situations people find themselves in and what causes them to perceive things or act in a certain way. You are no longer objective and you will be fighting against what you know for the remainder of the project.

And because of that, any user personas you create will be a lot less valuable to you than they could (or should) be.

So this is work I do at the outset of the project, before any discussions or interactions with users occur. The only things I typically know about the prospective users at this point are the following (which come from client stakeholders):

  • Their job title (B2B)
  • Their basic day-to-day responsibilities (B2B)
  • How they use the product now
  • What other products they use in conjunction
  • How the Client thinks they use the product
  • What features or functions the Client thinks may be important to them

These serve as draft personas whose details will be filled in once I do start having those conversations and interviews. The idea is to start unbiased and then fill in the missing pieces. Working this way also allows what you learn about emotion and situations to illuminate the facts you find later during the interview process.

What you already know will shine a light on what you hear, enabling you to clarify the connections between cause and effect.

There are two primary tools I use for this process. Both are adapted from the work of Nikki Knox, a Design & Education strategist at Cooper. She introduced empathy mapping as a simple workshop activity performed with stakeholders (or anyone responsible for product development) in order to build empathy for end users. Nikki shared her approach in an article for UX magazine titled How to Use Persona Empathy Mapping.

What follows are two tools that have proven to be infinitely valuable to me in terms of increasing the realism and accuracy of user motivations.

The first tool is called an Empathy Mapping Template. It’s meant to help you establish empathy for the user and map their perceptions, pressures, influences, beliefs and goals.

The second tool is called a Situation Mapping Template. It’s meant to help you explore all the possible situations in which the product or tool is being used, which often reveals ways in which existing or possible features become more or less useful or desirable according to what’s happening at the time.

Combining both will give you a remarkably accurate sketch of a user persona whose motivations will most definitely affect your feature, function, UX and UI design decisions. These templates are available for download at

The empathy mapping template

This template is meant to help you consider how other people think, and what they feel as a result. Its purpose is to help you take a step back from focusing on user behaviors and focus on their emotions and experiences instead.

Empathy mapping template for creating effective personas
Joe’s empathy mapping template

Start by thinking about the sensory experiences of the person across the six areas of the template, and write down what comes to mind as you do. Ask yourself the following questions and get down what comes to mind — remember, this is exploration, so you do not have to be right.

  • What does s/he likely believe? What does s/he worry about?”
  • Where does s/he work? In what ways do you think that environment influences decisions or constrains the ability to act?
  • From a social perspective, who influences how s/he thinks or what s/he does – bosses or coworkers? Friends? Family?
  • How does s/he want to be thought of and “seen” at work or in public? What image is sh/e trying to project across social media?
  • What fears and frustrations does s/he likely have, and what typical obstacles to success might be present?
  • What does s/he want, need or believe to be success?

Again, these are inferred guesses, and that’s OK. You will get closer to reality and throw out the things that don’t apply later on in the project.

Right now the only thing that needs to happen is for you to get your brain into the purposeful habit of trying to put yourself into that person’s heart and mind.

Just go – think, write and examine. You may use multiple sheets for the same person, and you may find that coming back to your work a day or two after the fact helps you see it more clearly. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Love what you’ve just read? To keep reading and find out more about the situation mapping template, grab a copy of Joe’s ebook ‘Think First to read the whole approach to creating successful products, powerful user experiences and very happy customers.

Grab your copy now

Written by
Joe Natoli
Join the discussion