How To Use User Personas (And Our Personas From The Fellowship)

User personas are a powerful tool to help clarify who you’re trying to serve and how you can best help them. As a tool from the start-up, marketing and design worlds, we wanted to show you how we’ve used them in our own work, and how you might use them in yours!

But first, what are user personas?

Personas are bundles of roles and situations that have common characteristics.  Think of a user persona like a person’s Facebook profile.


Front and center, there’s a photo and name. You can also see some demographic information, like their age, ethnicity, religion and hometown.

Dig a little deeper, you can also see what somebody likes, what drives them and perhaps even what they’re struggling with at that time.

User personas are not sterotypes, because a sterotype contains all sorts of generalisations. User personas contain lots of specific information about an imaginary person you’re trying to reach or serve. And, importantly, they are based on real knowledge about real people.

How to create user personas

Creating user personas is an iterative process that will happen over a few weeks or months. Your end product will be three to six profiles of the sort of people you’re looking to serve.

One of the best ways to create personas is to sit down with a small group around a whiteboard. Getting visual on a whiteboard helps you to see the links and differences.

Basically, you’re trying to create a memorable, identifiable picture of a person you’re trying to serve. Draw a picture, or download an open sourced image off the web, for each persona. Create a name for each one. It can be helpful to use a name that links with their main challenge or need. E.g. Emma is looking for employment. Flossie is having troubles in her flat.

Then, once you’ve got four to six user personas you need to test them out. Don’t worry about being too accurate. Take your first draft and go test the personas on colleagues and collaborators from other organisations. Or, even better, try putting them past the people you’re trying to reach.

Incorporate their feedback, and repeat as long as it feels useful.

If you need more help, check out our post from 2014 about user personas and how you might go about building them. Another favourite template is here on the DIY Toolkit website. It’s more strengths-based than many templates, which focus on “problems” or “pains”.

They sound like hard work. Why bother?

The possibilities with user personas are enormous. That’s why they are one of the few tools that are recommended by marketers, lean start-up folks, designers and IT folks alike.

At a masterclass in her work with Smallfire, Penny had previously shared her thoughts on how you might apply user personas in a health or wellbeing context:

To stay focused on the people

When working with health management teams for example, we might start a workshop with participants reading and introducing personas of people and families/whānau from the community. This helps them work together and remind and ground the team that the focus needs to be people-centred, and decisions grounded in the impact and benefits for people.

To check our understanding of different groups of people with those people

When working with young people we might start by asking them to create an online profile for a simple persona. So converting 5-6 lines of text describing a young person into an image that visualises what would they be saying, hearing, posting, tagging, listening etc. This allows us to check if our understanding and data about those young people is accurate (young people will tell us if the personas don’t ring true).

To make sensitive discussions safe

We’ve used personas in lots of workshops where we want to explore sensitive or private topics. For example young people can tell us about why a persona might act in a certain way – rather than having to disclose specific things about themselves. This is especially useful when talking about sensitive issues such as mental health, sexual health or illegal activities.

To generate people-centred interventions and responses

It’s common for people to have lots of ideas about what should change or the solutions needed. Using personas to test ideas or to generate them, is one way to help ensure that proposed solutions are responding to the needs of real people, and that they account for the reality of
people’s lives.

To bring to life the people behind data and statistics

We often use scenarios to give meaning to and communicate quantitative data and statistics – what is actually happening for people on the ground? Scenarios can quickly show this.

To help explore the impacts of systems changes

Scenarios can help stakeholders explore the implications of system and policy level changes on a human level. To help envisage change, cross sector stakeholders can work together to develop a future scenario that shows how people’s’ lives might be different as a result of a change in
policy for example.

To facilitate discussion and planning for cross sector systems change

To work out how to achieve a change, cross sector groups might create the ideal scenario, and then work backwards (backcast) to identify the steps we’d need to take to get there.

To co-create interventions

In workshops we’ve asked young people to create their own scenarios, to show how or why someone would or wouldn’t interact with a particular service intervention. Using half finished story boards for example, and asking young people to fill in the gaps that show what would need to be in place for them to want to use or do something (e.g., access a health intervention).

Our Example: User personas for the Flourishing Fellowship

Since 2015, we’ve been continually reflecting on who might be the most important audiences for our programmes. We have captured these reflections in user personas.

For our programmes, it’s often the mix of personas that enables the best results for Fellows and their communities. Below we offer the personas we believe derive the greatest benefits from programmes like the Flourishing Fellowship when brought together to learn from each other.

Those six user personas are:

  1. Youth Worker
  2. Community Activator
  3. Frontline Influencer
  4. Early Career Government Employee
  5. Service Planner
  6. Entrepreneurial Spirit
Tiri: Youth Worker Tiri works alongside people all day every day. Youth work is his main mahi and he’s been doing it for several years. His community has high unemployment and a strong gang presence. Alcohol and other drug use is normal, and this has contributed to a negative perception of young people in his community. Tiri doesn’t have any formal qualifications. He graduated from ‘The School of Life’ with first-hand experience in some of the barriers to wellbeing faced by the rangatahi he serves. He feels isolated from bigger trends and policies, and lacks confidence in his ability to make change beyond his set job description. Marama: Community Activator Marama is deeply involved in an urban community that lacks services for young people. Her current role is focussed on health promotion, primary prevention and community activation. Every day she hears older members of the community moaning about young people. She knows first hand the impact of poverty on whānau. Many of the young people in her community have low self-esteem, significant alcohol or other drug use, low aspirations and poor physical health. Marama wants to add more tools to her kete, particularly around codesign, systems thinking and how to leverage her existing relationships. Toby: frontline influencer Toby is an experienced front line professional. He worked for several years as a teacher, before retraining as a police officer. Every day he witnesses the challenges faced by young people in his community. He is well-respected in his community for his up-front approach and commitment to building meaningful relationships. He wants to take more of a preventive role to increase the protective factors for young people in his community. However, he is overwhelmed by his commitments and uncertain about his impact. Jemma: Early career  government employee Jemma is a well-educated employee of a government department. She is fairly new to the role and is interested in how she might create improved conditions for youth wellbeing. She feels frustrated by the disconnection between her narrow area of work and the wide range of issues that impact young people on a day-to-day basis. She wants to become an intrapreneur who can influence change within the government system. Kiri: Service Planner For the last five years Kiri has worked in service provision, funding and planning. Her role is to improve the provision of services at a community level. She does not regularly interact with young people, although her work impacts them. Her colleagues label her as ‘innovative’, a ‘rule-breaker’ and somebody who gets things done. She has enough institutional knowledge to be able to identify areas and relationships to leverage for change. But she feels disconnected from the young people she is trying to serve. Dave: Entrepreneurial spirit Dave is a young social entrepreneur who dropped out of university to pursue a start-up that has since wound up. He has plenty of transferrable enterprise skills from that experience and would like to use them to benefit his community. He knows about the challenges young people face in his community from his volunteer work helping local charities to better use technology. He is keen to get something started, but is not sure where to start.

(The text of this image is pasted into its “Alternative Text” section for people using reading assistance apps.)

How we would use User Personas for future programmes

If we were to run the Fellowship again, we would target our recruitment process to these types of personas. We know this type of programme creates most impact for those who already have the opportunity to apply the learnings, they have the motivation to integrate new ways of working and they have existing capability within the youth wellbeing workforce to influence change.

We would also continue to encourage previous Fellows to nominate their peers and align our messaging to appeal to those personas.

If you’re not yet using User Personas, chat to your team and give them a try!

We hope you’ve found this post useful to explain the purpose of user personas. We encourage you to give them a go if you’re not already using them.

Many people who are initially dubious about user personas end up find them one of the most useful tools for expanding the reach and impact of their mahi.

As for the Flourishing Fellowship, we’ll soon be releasing the 2017 Flourishing Fellowship Impact Report and video. Keep your eyes peeled!

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