How many personas are too many?

Personas (or customer archetypes) are essentially a design tool to create empathy with a group of real users.

As a UX professional, one of the most frequently asked questions by our clients is that how many personas are sufficient to effectively evaluate and design the user experience. The short answer is: It depends. There isn’t really a magic number a brand or project should follow, but it is generally recognized that 3-8 personas are sufficient in most cases.

Many people, including design professionals, are often confused about the differences between customer segmentations and personas. While a brand can offer a wide variety of products and services, with a large line-up of LOBs (Line-of-business), and a complex customer segmentation strategy, it is rare that a same large number of personas are required for any given project. This is because customer segmentation and persona are distinctly different tools for different purposes.

Customer segmentation is a marketing tool to identify different groups of customers (or potential customers) within a market so that it is possible to target particular products, services or marketing messages. There are many ways to slice and dice customer segments depending on the marketing needs, such as age, income or life stages. Customer segmentation itself does not provide insights but a way to differentiate and group customers.

Persona (or customer archetype) on the other hand, is essentially a design tool to create empathy with a group of real users. Personas are fictional characters (but based upon robust research with real people) designed to represent a group of people with similar characters, values, and behaviours. The purpose of personas is to mix demographic information with archetypal behaviors in a believable and true to data harmony. Personas are most useful when they are paired with scenarios to provide contexts and lead to insights thus guide design decisions.

Customer segments and personas are not mutually exclusive however they are totally different types of tools for different purposes and contexts of use. In some cases, personas could be mapped to segmentations to represent key customer segments, but in other cases, personas could be based on factors that are totally separate from segmentations. For example, when we segment insurance customers we may segment them by life stages while looking at a digital decision flow design we will develop personas focused on their readiness to make a decision and their use of digital as opposed to life stages.

So how can we best determine how many personas are sufficient for a project? The rule of thumb is that ‘less is more’.

Designers and strategists need to keep in mind personas are an essential tool to guide goal/ behaviour based UX design process. If two personas are similar in their goals and behaviours, only one is needed. Too many personas would result in potential wasted effort and loss of focus in what really matters. (For example, if a stay-at-home mom and a career mom follow the same patterns with the same goals in mind and using the same digital touch points when researching for baby diapers, then there is one too many.)

It is ok to start broad, listing out all possible user groups with a matrix of their goals, mindsets, and behaviours. While it is equally important to prioritise and eliminate redundancies when you find striking similarities between user groups. Remember personas are meant to help you make design decisions. If a persona does not add more value to the mix, you may have to grant a graceful ‘persona-cide’ in your process.

To learn more about personas, here’s a good read: The origin of personas

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