Expert tips for user persona design in user story mapping

Understanding users’ needs, wants and journey’s is key to build great products, but it may as well be the hardest part.

User persona design has been a steady component of product development to help dev teams empathise with users. Agile teams can easily loose focus on user journeys and tend to fixate on storypoints. This is when the role of the Product Owner becomes critical who can help to keep a user-centric approach, using user personas in story mapping.

When you look at the literature on user personas, you may come across basic templates and clichés. So where do you go if you need more advanced techniques? 

UI/UX Designers are usually experts in the subject, so it’s worth turning to them for ideas. This is also what we did for this blog post. Here’s what we’ve found out:

Types of user personas in story mapping

Not all user personas are created the same way. UI/UX designers identify 4 different types based on the objective and the amount of previous research done. None of them is the ultimate go to type, you may need all of them at different stages of product development.

Goal-directed persona

Goal-directed personas are short, straight to the point. They answer a simple question: What does the user want to achieve with this product? Goal-directed personas are usually short descriptions, relying on facts mainly. 

It’s advised to use this type when you have already done plenty of research on your users and have a very good understanding of them. This type doesn’t evoke empathy per sé, therefore, teams who can fill in the blanks can benefit from it the most.

Role-based personas

Role-based personas are based on what role a given user occupies within the organisation. For instance, executives and managers are going to use tools differently than the dev team and they very often need a different user persona based on their role.

Engaging personas

Channeling the best of the above mentioned two approaches, you can design engaging personas. The goal is to build a persona that feels very close to real for the whole team so that as many people engage with your persona as possible. Engaging personas should be built with the emotions and psychology of the user in mind, have something about their background so that you can have a deeper understanding of their goals. Engaging personas are the most helpful with evoking empathy.

Fictional personas

Fictional personas are based on assumptions of previous experience with users. When a design team makes a hypothesis of what a specific persona might or might not want to achieve, we call them fictional personas. Keep in mind that these types of personas can be very wrong and should always be researched deeply before using them in user story maps. As Jeff Patton also emphasises “You are not your user”. Don’t fall into the trap of self-substitution.

Expert tips from UI/UX designers 

user persona example

Don’t just ask users what they want – Rely on data-driven user persona research

Good persona is built from good data, not from mindless brainstorming. Many dev teams fall into the trap of asking users what features they would like to see on the product and simply follow their wishes.

Where does that lead to? 
Without a clear understanding of your users, you’re likely to find yourself in a feature competition and loose (or never reach) your competitive advantage. Users are no experts in UX research and often miss to see the big picture. 

Make sure to rely on data when creating user personas and try to filter out the guesses as much as possible. 

What can be considered as research? 
Research doesn’t have to look super scientific. Spending time talking to users and watching them use your product is already very valuable research. Make sure to always include observing users in your research phase or best if you continuously do so.

User persona research and development of archetypes should always precede user story mapping. Vague statements should follow careful research, not precede it, such as the one essential for user story mapping:

“As a _____, I want _____ so that I can_____.

How many personas should we have on a story map?

user journey user persona

Priorization is also king when it comes to the number of user personas. You need to have a fix number in mind when deciding on how many personas you’ll want to build for a single user story map. Once you’ve brainstormed on all types of personas that might use your product, rank them from most to least critical. Every persona should have a good reason why to include it, if it won’t affect the final design, get rid of it.

A typical software product will have between 3 to 10 personas, a good story map should have fewer than that. However, when mapping, you should always have a single persona in focus, otherwise, you’ll want to meet every single requirement of each persona, which is impossible.

How do user personas help with priorization and release planning?

Give the best possible experience to your persona in focus. Especially, when you’re building an MVP, you don’t have the luxury of including all possible users. As we’ve mentioned before, priorization is king. Walking through each persona on the story map and identifying individual user stories and gaps in the story map is key, but you’ll have to be able to prioritise user stories that will need to be included in the MVP.

What happens when your personas are organizations?

Organizational profiles can also work as personas. Jeff Patton calls these “orgzonas”. These personas tend to be much more “fact-heavy” and have fewer fictional elements. Research is much more complex because users and decision makers are not the same person. Even if you design your product with the user in mind, you’ll have to factor in other stakeholders.

Find the balance between facts and fiction

Fictional details can be very helpful, but if you overdo them, it’ll lead to fictional personas. Rely on facts of a thorough persona research and only fill in the ‘blanks’ with fiction such as likes and dislikes, hobbies of a character. These small details will help your team put themselves in the persona’s shoes, but won’t lead them to false conclusions.

How to build user personas in StoriesOnBoard that will assist you with building a great product?

StoriesOnBoard supports pragmatic user persona creation used by most agile teams. For all types of personas identified as critical, pick a custom icon that best describes them and fill in their profiles. You can create persona groups based on job roles, archetypes etc. 

In the StoriesOnBoard app, you can add personas to both epics and individual story cards so that you can map user journeys and potentially identify gaps in user stories more easily. 

StoriesOnBoard tip : One persona – one user journey

Assigning a new persona to every different user journey can be a good idea if you have multiple user journeys such as “impulse shopper”, “researcher”, “discount chaser”, “fashionable diva” or “last minute shopper”. This way you’ll evidently use personas to map individual user journeys on your user story map. Identifying user journeys becomes significantly easier if you can filter them by personas.

If you need more tips on how to tag and visualize user personas and user journeys on story maps like a pro, read our guide on the topic here.

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