Persona design: four dominant themes that will drive your success

Persona design: four dominant themes that will drive your success

Personas have become the fundamental building blocks for customer experience design. They’re used to help guide decision making, ensuring the entire design – from the high-level strategy to individual details in services and websites – is consistently delivering what the customer expects and what the business wants to achieve. Unfortunately it is all too easy to cram so much information into them that they lose focus and become unusable and even counterproductive.

Through our work on customer experience design, we’ve identified four dominant themes that drive persona development. The most effective persona sets have chosen one of these as a dominant focus, using it to drive a design that is aligned with the core business objectives. Around this core are elements from the other themes, cherry picked to add more colour and context without distraction.

Financial Focus.

Useful for companies who are explicitly driven by financial targets (such as increasing revenues or profits), a financially focused persona aims to target customer groups whose spending levels and patterns align with company objectives. In its most simple form personas are created by looking at factors such as “wallet share”, spending levels, frequency of spend, profitability and purchase volume. 

Demographic Focus.

Some businesses are driven by the demographics of their customers and should align their personas accordingly. Understanding customer groupings by age, gender, profession, location and so on can be useful for services businesses whose products are often tailored around demographic data.

Behavioural Focus.

Where there is a strong “lifestyle” brand the behaviour of the customer should be the focus. These personas attempt to describe the customer in more “esoteric” terms, often considering their life objectives, how they want to be perceived by peers and their expectations from the companies they do business with. 

Functional Focus.

Typically encountered in B2B companies, there are sectors where the emphasis is on the functionality that the customer wishes to access, in which case a functional focus is appropriate. This can either break down the business’s offerings into functional blocks that are then distributed logically amongst personas or align with the job function that the persona relates to.

Finding the right focus

In our work we’ve found companies will tend to focus on one theme which matches their outlook. Where they’ve tried to adopt a different focus (such as a functional business trying to adopt lifestyle driven behavioural personas) conflict arises. Usually this is subtle, simple misunderstandings in communication leading to a design the client doesn’t feel they own. In extreme examples we have seen companies and agencies at loggerheads, ending with a complete breakdown in the relationship.

We’ve also found companies who rely solely on one theme end up with personas that are flat and unengaging. To stock this from happening, we’ll usually incorporate elements from the other three themes, described in loose terms. For example, a demographic focused persona may describe a user as 43 years of age with an annual income of €55,000. In a functional one we may simply describe them as middle aged and middle management. The former puts focus on specific demographic factors, the latter adds some depth and helps empathy.

Lessons for leadership

Our suggestion is leaders on projects make sure they understand the primary alignment of the business and create personas to match. Trying to force a change in perspective risks creating tension, even open conflict.

We also suggest personas shouldn’t be solely focused on one core theme. Incorporating other elements will help develop empathy, and often lead to insights coming into designs from unexpected quarters.


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