User Personas and Scenarios

Bringing who and why into focus

With the right amount of research, anyone can identify who will use their products but to understand your audience, you have to know when and why they will use it.

Updated June 30, 2019

As designers, the vast majority of our work ends up in the hand of a user who interacts with what we’ve made. Our goal is always to deliver an experience that meets or exceeds the expectation of that user. The best chance we have to reach that goal is to determine who that user is.

User Personas were introduced by software designer Alan Cooper nearly two decades ago to help focus our decision making on the people who use our products.

The personas you will create are fictional composites constructed from facts and observations gathered throughout your discovery and research process. Because they are born out of research artifacts, personas stand apart from our subjective opinions and establish themselves as a user advocacy tool for your team.

The components of your composites

Every project you work on will be different, and the time you have to dedicate to research will likely vary. This will be reflected in the quality and depth of the personas you can create. Still, there are fundamental concepts that should be present in all personas.

persona-components Source:


While I purposefully downplayed the role of demographics when you were conducting user research, demographics definitely play a role when you are creating a persona. The people who interact with your work (teammates, clients, executives) will want tangible details that they can grasp onto. Categories like age, gender, ethnicity, job, location, etc. can all be lifted from the research that you’ve already gathered.

Key quote

In your user interviews, there was likely to be at least one moment where the participant said something that struck you like a bolt of lightning. They didn’t realize it, but their words hit a nerve, and it likely took you a moment to recover. When these exchanges occur, you won’t have a problem remembering the incident, but you might struggle to determine what to do with it.

Names and faces

There are specific elements you should avoid repurposing. No participant names or photos should not be used in the creation of a persona. While this isn’t a fake person, it is a composite so it shouldn’t share identifiable characteristics with the person from your research. You can always use LinkedIn for potential names, and stock image services like Pexels offer a variety of free options to choose from.

Goals and Frustrations

Every user you came into contact with through the research process was trying to accomplish a set of goals, and with those goals were a variety of frustrations that somehow impeded progress. Your product must help users irradicate their current frustrations — ethically.

Understanding the sides present with this dynamic help us see a fuller range of possible options that will benefit our user, our business, and society.


Perfect solutions are for the privileged. Most of our users won’t have ample experience in their field, or instant access to technology, or the ability to make key decisions at their workplace. Your solutions will have to reside in reality, and one of the ways you can ensure that happens is by displaying what reality is really like via your user persona. Limited funding, time, and skill are all design constraints that you can overcome — but only if you are aware of them.


It’s common to have more than one persona at the end of your creation process. While each persona will have unique attributes, we’ve only discovered who they are and what they want. Learning how this composite user would react to the different scenarios our system presents gives us the first glimpse of the users perspective.

For example, if you had a bank as a client and they wanted to streamline their offerings, you’d want to understand which products were best suited for their core audience. Aside from identifying a set of specific personas, you would then apply scenarios like ‘purchasing your first home’ and ‘opening a college savings account’ against those personas. There will be individual personas that those scenarios would resonate with, and you can begin to understand how that audience would have unique needs that are different than the bank’s other customers.

Scenario + {Action} = Persona Goal

As Erika Hall points out in Just Enough Research, “scenarios are from the perspective of the individual human user represented by the persona, not the perspective of the system or business process.” This guides us to build around the scenario present and the stated goal of a user. With this framing, we can work through the possible experiences our persona might encounter.

Our unique advantage is that we know the goals of our users. This provides us with the ability to see how we can help them achieve their goal and which users our solutions might apply to. With more work and testing, we can bring this initial vision into better focus.

Beyond the persona

Personas and their associated scenarios are potent tools that will push the next stage of your product development forward — but they have a blind spot. Without careful attention, you could conceivably create a uniquely user-centric product that fails to account for people and scenarios that apply to our products but not our core users.

The Journal of the American Medical Association featured a study that identified 22 different UX flaws in a medicine ordering system that could deliver the wrong medication to patients. A Nielsen Norman group headline related to the study says it all, "How to Kill Patients Through Bad Design".

Nurses are not often the end-user of a medical device, but they are the facilitator of medical service; therefore, it is vital to be aware of their concerns. Administrative staff may spend hours a day helping customers work through problems, but they are often the last looped into the deployment of a new tool.

You can impact these issues by focusing on more than just the end-users of the product.

While we’re into the realm of thinking beyond the apparent bottom line items, this is also the time where scenarios that impact society come into view. How could your product or service be abused to the detriment of the community you serve?

At the very beginning of the course, we started our journey on the topic of Systems Thinking because of issues like those above. When our products are built with only a specific goal or user in mind, these situations occur. When you see an article stating that ‘user-centered design is dead’, these incidents are precisely why those stories are written.

In truth, we’re interested in the user AND the world they operate within. We’re interested in the user, the tools, and the support team that interacts with that user.

This all begins with you — but you still need to know who the user is before you can start helping anyone.

Further reading

Source Author(s)
Lean UX Jeff Gothelf
Just Enough Research Erika Hall
Making Personas Truly Valuable Jared Spool

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