A Springboard UX Design Mentor Takes Us Inside the User Persona Lifecycle
Want to build a better product? Get to know your users.
One of the most effective ways to connect with a target audience is through user personas. As Adobe explains: “User personas are archetypical users whose goals and characteristics represent the needs of a larger group of users.”
UX designers create user personas to better understand the psychology of their users. When formulating a persona, designers must answer questions like: How old is this user? What are their hobbies? What do they aspire to? How do they think?
To learn more about user personas in action, we chatted with UX architect and Springboard UX design mentor James Young about his work building user personas for the ubiquitous dating platform FarmersOnly.
Related: What is UX Design?
Over the course of your UX career, you’ve worked with clients across industries from healthcare to insurance. How did you get involved with FarmersOnly?
They reached out and wanted to know if I could do some architecture work and help their team on the research side. I spent about eighteen months or so, helping them. That’s when they got their third round of VC money, and that’s when their commercials all started popping up all over the place.
Are dating app user personas different from user personas geared towards other types of products?
It’s a little bit different. If we were doing e-commerce, our personification of the users would be grouped around: What are they looking for? How are they spending? But in a dating app, if you build to that it becomes really obvious that’s what you’re doing. So we had to look at it from a different level: what is the success factor for someone on Farmers and what is driving that success?
FarmersOnly users are really looking for a connection. They’re looking for a relationship that lasts. Sex is always going to be part of relationships, but that was rarely the focus. Their whole position on this is not only serious, it’s nurturing.
Farmers are also very specific in what they’re looking for. These are men and women who are used to looking at livestock. They’re used to looking at fruit and vegetables, and they know exactly what they’re looking for. And they’re no different with their spouse or prospective dates, in the sense that they know exactly what they’re looking for.
So the question was, how do we make farmers reveal themselves without putting either person in an uncomfortable situation? People who are farmers are going to be a lot more reserved. They’re not necessarily the most technically proficient users, and they’ve heard the stories about people [on dating apps] being catfished or lied to, so they’re a lot more reserved in that way, too.
What process did you use to create the FarmersOnly user personas?
We started with the normal UX process. We asked, “OK, what do we want to know and what is our reason for knowing this?” Then we followed that through affinity maps and empathy maps and in writing the personas and personifying the UI.
We did research through voluntary studies. The University of Oklahoma helped us. We brought in some of their researchers and we recruited from their existing pool [of volunteers]. We told them, “We’ll give you a year [on FarmersOnly] for free if you do a diary study with us.” We would also just talk to the volunteers, or sometimes they would take notes and send them to us.
In the beginning, our problem was, what questions do we ask? But once we started getting this feedback, questions started to spring to mind.
For example, other dating app users are probably thinking, “Hey, I’m going to get on this at seven o’clock at night, or after I get off work.” But that’s not when farmers get on. They’re on at five o’clock in the morning. That’s when they’re awake. That’s when they’ve got quiet time. They’re drinking their coffee, looking for a spouse, or looking for a date, it’s a whole different dynamic, different mindset.
We would not have considered that until we started talking to the users. Once that came to light, so did similar things like connectivity. Are they using their phone? Do they have the bandwidth? Because out in the country they may not. So we started looking at that information and we started putting together some profiles.
What else made these FarmersOnly user personas unique?
I don’t think that there’s another app where “Do you fish?” would be a question. But that’s important to farmers. Going out for dinner and seeing a movie—that’s probably not the farmer’s lifestyle. So those are the kind of screening questions we had. The pool was so specific.
With FarmersOnly we had three personas. We had Rick, who was younger and probably hadn’t had a lot of relationships. Then we had Dan, who was older, maybe widowed or divorced. Then we had Janine, who was in her 30’s, willing to date younger, willing to date older, very wholesome, and probably grew up on a farm herself. And that was a pretty good representation of the people who were using that application.
Whereas for apps like Tinder, I would imagine, there are probably several personas. You could easily do 15, seven men, and eight women, and probably still not get everything. You’d have to look at the age 20 professional. You have to look at the divorcee. You’d have to look at the cheaters. All of those different things.
You create a persona based on a significant group of people who share similar attributes, at least for five years. To create multiple personas, there has to be a significant difference between them. For example—in my 20’s, I want to meet somebody. I’m just out of school, I’ve got a little bit of money. I’ve got a lot of spare time or some spare time. I’m old enough to drink, there’s no mom and dad anymore.
Then as you go from 24 to 30, that begins to change. Now I’m moving from wanting a different date every week to wanting to meet that special someone. As I get into my 30’s, it becomes a little more serious. In my 30’s, I want to marry somebody, or have children, whatever that goal is. Then in my 40’s, I want to rekindle my youth. Right?
How stable are user personas?
Personas go through life. They start out as embryo personas—that’s when we don’t know a lot about the persona, but we know some things. As we learn more hard facts, they become teenagers. That happens pretty quickly, over about six weeks or so.
Personas become mature after maybe six or eight months as we learn more and more. Then after that maturity, we might give them around three or four years or longer. After they become seniors, we’ll start sunsetting them. Sunset is retirement.
As you use an application, your audience changes or the application changes. In fact, as audiences use an application they become more proficient with it—there’s sort of this groupthink that happens. Say 80% of your audience really knows the application—imagine, let’s say, 80% of Facebook users today. There’s a groupthink that people who are just getting on to Facebook kind of learn from those other folks.
But if you think about Facebook 15 years ago and you compare it to today—if today’s Facebook existed back then—nobody could use it, it just wouldn’t make sense. That’s also true with dating apps, especially because they’re so they’re emotional, just like Facebook is.
Basically, we retire personas as users change and habits change. And then we start again.
Related: What Does a UX Designer Do?
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