Developing an accurate picture of your customers doesn’t need to cost you large amounts of money and effort. There’s a time and a place for specialized tools, in-depth interviews, and complex datasets; but you can also do a lot with little, and simply asking your customers three questions should give you a clear enough idea of who you’re dealing with so you can improve your website experience for them.
Today, I’ll walk you through the basics of researching and building a simple user persona for your business, which will look something like this:
A simple, no-frills example of a user persona
To keep this practical, I’ll use a real-life example from Swiss-based company Smallpdf. They had a few assumptions about who their users were, but no actual data to back them up: so they set up a simple survey on their homepage, and used the answers as a launchpad to build very basic user personas and run more in-depth research. Tailoring their website and products to meet these personas’ needs increased the success rate of their tool by 75% and increased Net Promoter Score (NPS) by 1%.
Let me show you how they did it so you can do the same yourself.
A user persona is a semi-fictional character based on the people who currently use your website or product. It reflects who they are, what they need, and what may stop them from getting it.
User personas are extremely useful to grow and improve a business: they help uncover the different ways people search for, buy, and use products, so you can focus your efforts on improving the experience for real people and use cases.
Why did Smallpdf need personas?
Smallpdf is a free, straightforward web app that makes it easy for users to edit and convert PDF files into a variety of formats:
smallpdf’s current homepage
The tool is technically the same for everybody, but when it comes to PDF needs there are huge differences between, say, admins who need to create word documents from printed sheets of paper, and the way I might need to password-protect an ebook draft.
Anyway: Smallpdf had very general assumptions about who their users were, and no clear associations between what someone’s profession was and what features they were using. Even though the team did not think of this as 'creating personas', they embarked on a research project to identify their main user demographics and their goals, which in turn helped them better understand their users and improve their tools.
What should a user persona consist of?
Let’s start with some basic theory. A simple persona, like the ones Smallpdf eventually created, answers the following questions:
Who are you?
What’s your main goal?
What’s your main barrier to achieving this goal?
Think about it: even though they’re buying or using the same product, your users and customers have different needs and are drawn to different things. So when you ask these questions, the answers allow you to paint a clear picture of:
Who are they?
You’re looking for details like “B2C marketer who works for a large company” or “office admin who manages digital and print correspondence,” which sum up a lot about your persona’s perspective when it comes to choosing and using your product.
What are their goals?
This is so you can understand how your product/service actually fits into your users’ and customers’ lives. Why are they buying/using it? What job are they trying to get done with it, what problem are they trying to solve?
What are the barriers preventing them from achieving their goals?
Now that you know who your users and customers are and what they are trying to accomplish, there’s one more thing to find out: what is stopping them from buying your product, or using it more often/better/more expertly?
Let’s put this into the context of Smallpdf.
The 5 questions Smallpdf used to build user personas
To build their persona, Smallpdf used five questions:
What are you using Smallpdf for right now?
What kind of documents do you process with Smallpdf?
What is your profession?
Are you a Pro (paying) user?
What was the last PDF-related task you struggled with?
Notice how questions 1 and 2 are about goals, questions 3 and 4 about demographics, and question 5 is about barriers and concerns.
Now, most of their users didn’t finish all five; but that was still okay because what Smallpdf learned from the thousand-some-odd replies (to the first three) gave them a starting place to spot some overarching trends and start building their first persona.
A simple user persona example
This is an example of the simple persona Smallpdf came up with on the back of their research:
Who are they?
What is their main goal?
What is their main concern/barrier to achieving this goal?
Administrative assistant persona
Administrative assistant working for large companies.
They want to create Word documents from printed documents handed over to them or PDF documents where the source has been lost.
They struggle to do so because converting printed docs or PDFs docs to fully editable Word documents is super difficult without Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Most of them end up manually recreating them.
Note that this information would have been impossible to come by simply by looking at Google Analytics or making assumptions about how people use a product. Instead they've used website feedback to their advantage.
So, here’s a top-level run-down of how they got to it, before I go and show you exactly how you can do it yourself in the next section.
1. They set up a short on-page survey
This step was the easiest.
Smallpdf could have sent long surveys to their customers, spent days interviewing them, or even hired an expensive market research company. Instead, they used the Hotjar Poll tool to create a 5-question survey that ran on their homepage for a couple of weeks, until it reached 1,000 answers:
one of the 5 survey questions Smallpdf asked their users
2. They analyzed the data
When you ask open-ended questions, you receive mountains of qualitative data. That was the case for Smallpdf, who stopped the survey after getting 1,000 replies.
Now, 1,000 replies are a lot if you have to go through them one by one manually. Luckily, there are tricks and shortcuts for it (I’ll show you below), but the point is that spending time analyzing the data allowed Smallpdf to come up with a clearer picture of their users. Which, in turn, meant that…
3. They drew conclusions
Thanks to the demographic question (What is your job title?), Smallpdf learned that students, teachers, designers, administrators, lawyers, medical professionals, and real estate agents made their list of most common users.
Through the goal questions (What are you using Smallpdf for right now? What kind of documents do you process with Smallpdf?), they saw how each group used the tool for largely different purposes, which they needed to address.
And with the barrier question (What’s a task you wanted to complete with Smallpdf, but couldn’t?), they now also had a clear picture of what they needed to fix and what features they could add to pre-empt user errors.
This was a great launchpad for a more in-depth investigation into the needs of these particular user types; the team thenused this information to launch a round of in-field research, and eventually one of their user personas broke down like this:
Who are they? Administrative Assistants
What is their main goal? Creating Word documents from a scanned, hard-copy document or a PDF where the source file was lost
What is their main barrier to achieving it? Converting a scanned PDF doc to a word file
What else did they learn about administrators?
" Administrators are asked to do the impossible on a day-to-day basis. This includes securely handling permission slips and forms from parents, recreating files whose sources have been lost, and sending out information from teachers to parents. They proofread all these documents to ensure the school is portrayed professionally. When text or dates need to be changed, they do it.”
Kristina Wagner - Interaction Designer, Smallpdf
What happened next?
Smallpdf powered up their PDF to Word tool with optical character recognition technology, so their users could extract text from any PDF or image. They also added localization packages in several common languages, specifically so that administrators around the world could reproduce scanned documents accurately.
Eventually, the changes they put in place as a result of these personas increased the success rate of their tool by an impressive 75%; their NPS also increased slightly.
"With all the changes said and done, we've cut our original error rate in four, which is huge. We increased our NPS by +1%, which isn't huge, but it means that of the users who received a file, they were still slightly happier than before, even if they didn't notice that anything special happened at all.”
Kristina Wagner - Interaction Designer, Smallpdf
They also left a Hotjar widget at the side of page so users could freely report any annoyances or issues. This widget often functions as Smallpdf's safety check system: if they receive a lot of poor feedback, with or without explanation, they test the tool a second time, more rigorously, and reach out to users for more information.
4 steps to create a super-simple persona using your website
Now that you’ve seen the top-level summary of how Smallpdf did it, let me show you the step-by-step process you can follow to do it yourself. There are 4 steps in total:
Step 1: choose 3 questions for your survey
Here are three things you need to identify to get started building a persona: a key demographic, a key goal, and a key concern or barrier.
Your first survey doesn’t have to be perfect; it just needs to get you closer to understanding your customers by asking them three open-ended questions:
Describe yourself in one sentence, e.g. “I am a 30-year old marketer based in Dublin who enjoys writing articles about user personas.”
What is your main goal for using this website/product?
What, if anything, is preventing you from doing it?
Good questions will give you a sense of how your customers use your product or service, what problems are deal breakers, which features matter to them, etc. You can borrow the ones Smallpdf used and tweak them depending on your business; or you can take a look at this blog post that might spark your creativity: the survey questions we love to ask our users with 50+ examples.
Just be sure to limit this particular survey to three questions, so your users won’t get bored and drop off before finishing.
Step 2: set up a survey on your most visited page
Setting up and placing a survey on your most visited page will only take a few minutes. Here is how Smallpdf did it using Hotjar Polls (note: you can sign up to Hotjar for free to give this whole process a try yourself).
1 - Create a new poll
Click on ‘Polls’ in the sidebar menu, then ‘New Poll’:
2 - Name your poll
We’ll call ours ‘Homepage persona’, but you can choose whatever name you like:
3 - Set it to appear on the homepage
Select which devices you’ll show the poll on
Show the poll on your homepage by selecting the ‘On pages I specify’ option and writing your homepage URL in the dedicated space:
Select the percentage of visitors that will be shown this poll (pick 100% if you want to get results quicker, or a lower number if you worry that you might disrupt the experience):
4 - Add the questions
For question 1 (demographic):
Select ‘Long text answer’ as your question type
Write your question in the ‘Type your question here…’ field:
For question 2 (goal):
Click ‘Add Question’
Select ‘Long text answer’ as the question type
Write your question:
For question 3 (barrier):
Click ‘Add Question’
Select: ‘Long text answer’ as the question type
Write your question:
Personalize the thank you message
✏️NOTE: If you want to match a survey response to a Hotjar Session Recording to see the exact experience the customer had, make sure to check the box labeled ‘Ask respondents to give their consent to connect their feedback to data stored about them.’ 5 - Set the appearance
Set the language, position, background color (make sure to match your site’s color scheme), and theme.
6 - Set the behavior to launch immediately after the page loads
7 - Activate!
Set the status to ‘Active’ and you’re all set!
Okay, but—what does the data look like? As your users start filling in the poll, all the individual answers will be visible in the Hotjar dashboard. It will look a bit like this:
This is great for keeping an eye on how things are going while the poll is active; once you’re ready to pause and analyze the results, you’ll want to export all the data in .csv or .xlsx format. And you’ll have a button to do that at the top of your dashboard 😉
Step 3: analyze the data
Your goal is to identify one or two user personas to focus on, so you can start improving their experience today. After you have collected enough answers, you will have a spreadsheet full of data to help you do that.
Analyzing data-heavy documents like this one can be daunting, so I’ve created a user persona analysis template you can copy and re-use to make the process faster.
Instead of analyzing the three questions individually as the article suggests, analyze them together so you can spot patterns faster
Once you’re done, you’ll have your main demographics, goals, and barriers clearly organized on the spreadsheet.
Next: start by looking at the goals and see whether there’s one that stands out, with 50% of answers or more. If that’s the case, look at the demographics associated with the goal: if you also see a pattern with 50%+ answers with the same demographic, then you have your first user persona.
Goal 1 (60%)
Demographic 1 (53%)
Goal 1 + Demographic 1
Goal 2 (30%)
Goal 3 (10%)
If you don’t have a clear goal or a clear demographic that stand out, consider arranging them further:
Goal 1 (60%)
Demographic 1 (30%)
Goal 1 + Demographic 2
Demographic 2 (70%)
Goal 2 (30%)
Goal 3 (10%)
Step 4: build your persona
Based on the data you analyze, create one simple user persona that represents the largest chunk of your user base, and identifies a:
Key concern/barrier to purchase
You can use this information to fill in the user persona template below. Again, I created a template that you can just copy and start using immediately:
And that’s it! Go ahead and create a survey, work with the data you can gather right now, and trust that any information is better than no information.
As you grow, you will (hopefully) have the resources to conduct more in-depth research. And, however you choose to approach that research, creating these simple personas is a good first step.
5 tips for creating terrific user personas
When done properly, user personas are immensely useful to help you grow and improve your business. Here are five final tips to help you get started and create personas that work for you:
1. Don’t confuse demographic and persona
Some of the persona examples you see online paint quite vivid, clear pictures of a user demographic… and then stop right there.
A useful persona is always more than an age and a job title, because it helps you understand the motivations, fears, and concerns of your ideal market. Knowing that one of your personas is in their mid-30s and shops online twice a week is useless if you don’t know what is stopping them from buying things on your website today.
2. Start small, expand after
There are hundreds of eye-catching and really in-depth persona templates out there that you can fill in. It’s tempting, but when you’re just getting started doing persona work, and/or want to get results fast, the three attributes we mentioned—a demographic, their main goal, and a major barrier stopping them—and a simple one-page template are more than enough.
3. Don’t just ‘come up’ with personas: base them on real people
It’s also tempting to just ‘come up’ with user personas based on your/your colleagues/your boss’ understanding of your market.
Proper user personas should not be based on fictional stories your company is inventing. Avoid your own bias by asking simple questions to your real user base.
4. Talk to your users in person, if you can
Setting a simple survey like we showed you in this article is a fast/great start to do excellent persona work. If/when you feel the need to build your case further and expand on what you’ve built, nothing beats talking with a few of your real visitors and customers in person (or via video chat!).
Consider adding a question at the end of your survey asking to share their contact details if they’re happy to be contacted and talk further.
5. Keep an open mind
This is a consequence of the previous two points. You might be surprised by the answers you’re getting and tempted to steer away from them to follow your internal company narrative.
The first rule of marketing, as Mark Ritson puts it, is that you’re not the customer. Remember this, and let customer insight guide you.
Start building your persona
Get a free Hotjar trial, set up a simple 3-question poll, and start building your persona today!