The persona character sheet

I consider personas to be an essential component of successful design. They foster empathy with a product's users, and help focus design efforts. That said, personas can be problematic for a variety of reasons. For example, stakeholders can get stuck on the persona's physical representation (like name or picture) and view the persona as non-credible. Others get stuck on demographics and market segments, and don't understand how your personas are different.

One of the biggest reasons personas are controversial is because the stakeholders and teams who are meant to be using the personas often don't have a hand in creating them. Personas are too often created by an external research team who does interviews and then hands off the personas once research is done. When the team has no skin in the game, it's easy to dismiss personas as a purely academic exercise.

In comes the persona character sheet. As with any good role-playing game, the character sheet helps to frame the main characteristics, motivations and intentions of your personas, in a way that's meaningful to the rest of the team. As my husband (a longtime D&D player) says, the character sheet "gives you all the information you need to know to act that character out… and tells the game master how they should treat your character."

The character sheet workshop

For a recent rebranding project for the Pega Discovery Network, I worked with the stakeholder and design teams to conduct a persona character sheet workshop. The result was a set of 4 personas that the team fully bought into, which were then validated with survey research. The survey research ended up netting a 5th persona, which we hadn't accounted for in the initial workshop. Here's how we did it.

Step 1. Outline the character's main attributes

To effectively create a character sheet, you need to start with a set of realistic information to work with. We started by creating an Excel spreadsheet with columns for:

  • Mindsets (e.g. long-term vs. short-term focused, dives in vs. research before starting, etc.)
  • Intentions (e.g. things someone actually came to the site to do)
  • Demographics (e.g. job role, location, etc.)
  • Relationship to/familiarity with Pega
An Excel spreadsheet captured the main intentions, mindsets and demographics of our personas.

After working with stakeholders independently to fill in the columns, the items in the spreadsheet were turned into paper cards for the workshop.

Turning the items into printable cards helped facilitate the workshop.

Step 2. Conduct the workshop

To conduct the workshop, we needed dry erase markers, a big whiteboard, Scotch tape and a willing volunteer. Sharpies and extra paper are useful in case there's a use case you missed.

Using themes we had already discussed as a group, we mapped them out on the whiteboard and began to map our user intention cards against each theme. While some debate was allowed, the participants were encouraged to move quickly, not spending too much time on any one card. Once the intention cards were mapped, we started looking at the different mindset parameters, and seeing how the mindsets mapped to each intention. For example, someone who is trying to troubleshoot a problem with the software might be more short-term focused, while someone looking to share their knowledge with the larger community might be longer-term focused.

As we finished up mapping mindsets to intention, clear themes started to emerge. Intentions across themes seemed to come together with the same mindset; there were clear buckets of behavior we could see. At the end of the workshop, we had four extremely promising personas that we could validate.

By the end of the workshop, clear themes had emerged.

Step 3. Validate with surveys

As these personas were largely based on institutional knowledge and previous research, we needed a way to validate them. I used a tool called Hotjar, already installed on Pega's websites, to conduct an intercept survey on both the Pega Discovery Network and Pega Academy (our training delivery platform). The survey focused on key intentions, and asked users to choose their intention for visiting the site, along with a series of mindset-focused options.

The survey asked users to opt in both to their intention for visiting, and several mindset-based questions.

Upon analyzing the data, we were able to see where we had to adjust the original personas. We also uncovered a 5th persona, the Student, which we hadn't accounted for in the initial workshop.

Kudos and caveats

The result of all this work was a set of personas that the project team could not only fully buy into, but they could actually relate to. Almost immediately, the project team started referring to the personas by name, and referencing them in design briefs and project conversations. That said, there are some special caveats to bear in mind:

  • The character sheet is a snapshot in time, not a permanent state. Because the persona sheet focuses on intention and mindset rather than demographics or other identifiers, they are best viewed as a person's state of being in a particular moment. A person could identify with one persona during today's visit, but identify with a completely different persona the next.
  • For optimal buy-in, focus persona names on a brief description, not a name/picture. For our personas, we named them by characteristic, e.g. the Planner, the Expert, etc., and we gave them icons instead of headshots. This helped people take themselves out of obsessing about names or faces and focusing on the behaviors and mindsets.
  • Stakeholders from the business side must be present and engaged when doing the mapping exercise. The workshop is not the time to be checking phones, looking at laptops, or doodling. The conversation and visual aids are vital to help people become invested in these characters.

I encourage you to try a Character Sheet workshop the next time you need to create personas for your project.