Summary: The size of the company and the approach taken influence the time needed to create personas. Data from 216 companies provide a baseline to understand what affects persona-creation budgets and can help teams estimate the time and cost involved in this process.
Personas are representations of a cluster of users with similar behaviors, goals, and motivations. As such, personas are fictional, yet still realistic because they embody the characteristics and behaviors of actual people. In product development, personas are used to communicate information about users and create a common ground among different team members by unifying their views and understanding of target users. Many design and development teams create personas early on in a project to ground their product decisions in user data and achieve user-centered design.
Personas are a familiar, but often underutilized tool in the field of user experience. Many organizations perceive persona efforts as time consuming or too complex to undertake in a design project. To understand more about the “typical” persona project, we surveyed 216 user-experience professionals who shared their approaches to creating personas and the time it took their teams to conduct or review research, analyze data, and craft the personas.
Empirical vs. Nonempirical Personas
Organizations take various approaches to creating personas, ranging from empirical, data-intensive efforts that combine qualitative and quantitative data sources to nonempirical, assumption-based efforts that rely on existing knowledge about the user population. (Unless the personas are pure guesswork, which we don’t recommend: you should design for the customers you actually have and not for dreamed-up customers you might hope to have.)
Data-driven efforts are informed by specific empirical user research (both qualitative and quantitative) conducted for the purpose of creating the personas. These more extensive research undertakings may use insights from a variety of sources, such as usability testing, surveys, analytics, field studies, interviews, and market research.
On the other hand, other companies effectively create personas with little to no empirical-research data by taking advantage of assumptions and existing organizational knowledge from previous interactions with target users. Teams working with lower budgets, tighter schedules, or limited resources may choose this less data-driven approach, so they can still benefit from a user-centered focus but spend less time and money on the persona effort. I like to think of this type of personas as crowdsourced, as they are often created collectively by extracting insights from many individuals who have a deep understanding of the target user group. Personas should not, however, be completely fictional; they should be built on real insights from several people, and eventually validated for relevancy.
Time Spent Creating Personas
Our survey data offers an understanding of the level of investment that is involved with persona-related efforts and can help organizations plan ahead and evaluate the budget and resources needed for their projects. This data has implications for teams considering whether to create personas for their project and to what degree.
Regardless of the type of approach taken to persona creation, the process involves 3 different stages:
- Conducting research or gathering data
- Analyzing data
- Crafting the persona
Given that the empirical and nonempirical approaches to persona creation involve completely different types of work, to look at the amount of time it takes to create personas, we segment the survey data by the type of effort undertaken: primarily empirical or research-driven, or primarily nonempirical or assumption-driven. We also split the data by company size: teams with vast resources may have more time or budget available for persona efforts in comparison to teams at smaller organizations with potentially fewer resources. Additionally, we break out the total time by the 3 stages of persona creation: conducting research or gathering data, analyzing data, and crafting the persona.
Efforts Range in Size
As expected, small companies spent less time creating personas. The time expended ranged from 22.5 to 72.5 staff hours, depending on the amount of empirical-research data informing the effort. For large companies, timing ranged from 55 to 102.5 staff hours.
Based on these results, smaller companies could realistically expect to create a persona in 3 to 9 working days if only one employee participates in the process, or just about 1.5 to 5 working days with 2 employees. For larger companies, a team of four could effectively research and create personas in 2 to 4 days. These numbers are medians, so there are of course instances where the effort could be much higher or lower.
Proportion of Empirical Research Is Not Dependent on Company Size
Both large and small companies reported that around 54% (54.5% for small companies, and 54% for large companies) of their personas were based on empirical research. Although smaller companies spent fewer hours creating their personas, they based them on empirical research in approximately the same percentage as their larger counterparts.
Happily, we can say that although personas take less time to create at smaller companies, the methodology for approaching persona research is as data-driven as that of the larger companies. Smaller companies are not saving time by limiting the amount of research-based insight that goes into creating them; they are simply taking less time for the effort as a whole.
Why are small companies more efficient? That’s a topic for future research, but possible explanations include having fewer stakeholders with competing goals, simpler approval processes, and spending fewer staff hours on large-team meetings to discuss the project. Smaller companies may also have smaller, more tightly defined target audiences that are easier to study.
Empirical Research Increases Time Investment
Personas based on empirical data take longer to create than those based on nonempirical data. For both large and small companies, the amount of empirical research used to create the personas increases the timeframe of the effort as a whole. This increase is 86% for large companies, and 222% for small companies. Thus data-based persona creation almost doubles the time budget for large companies and it more than triples it for small ones. (Why is there a difference between small and large companies? Simply because the baseline in our comparison — the time taken for nonempirical personas— is so much lower for small companies than for large companies, as Figure 1 shows. )
Gathering Data for Personas Takes Most Time
Regardless of the empirical or nonempirical approach, teams spent most time in the first phase of the persona-creation process — conducting research and gathering data. The other two phases (analyzing data and crafting personas) were smaller, with data analysis taking somewhat longer than crafting the actual personas. This ordering holds true for both small and large companies — although smaller companies take less time overall, both large and small companies spend a similar percentage of their time in the respective phases of persona creation.
Teams creating nonempirical personas spent a smaller percentage of the overall effort in Phase 1 (conducting research), compared with teams that took an empirical approach (41% vs. 45% respectively; however this difference was not statistically significant). However, even for the personas based on a majority of nonempirical data, the research phase still existed and in fact took the largest share of the overall effort. This phase likely included some amount of empirical research, as well as gathering assumptions and existing insights from stakeholders and other individuals with a deep understanding of target users. Therefore, the research still exist, but, as Figure 1 shows, in absolute terms, it is less time intensive than for projects that are primarily empirical.
A final conclusion from Figure 2 is that the actual creation of the personas is the step that takes the least time. Of course, the personas are the goal for the entire process, but creating this deliverable is only the tip of a more substantial iceberg.
Planning For Personas
Personas can be a powerful tool for focusing teams and creating user-centered interfaces. Not knowing how much time and effort are required to create this supplementary design tool could deter some project teams from investing in them at all. Ignorance is fear, but knowledge is power: our research can help teams decide whether to invest in personas, to what degree, and using what approach.
Now you know that personas won’t break your budget and can be created in half a week in a pinch. (Followed by the later step of updating the personas from time to time.)
We discuss creating personas and selecting the right size of persona effort for your company in our full-day course Personas: Turn User Data into User-Centered Design.