Program Design

Program Design Methods (#1): User Persona

The Program Design Method series profiles design methods and exercises from professional design communities that program designers and evaluators can use to work more creatively and innovatively with clients to develop more impactful programs. The first in this series is User Persona. 

From evaluating programs we know that effective programs are those that respond to some genuine need(s) or perceived problem(s) for some targeted users in some purposeful ways over a period of time which can lead to meaningful change. Program developers typically have a good sense about what meaningful results they wish to promote with the program. And, program evaluators can help program developers to clarify, measure, and interpret what  meaningful, measurable results might be. Where there can be more ambiguity is uncovering constitutes purposeful ways to working with those targeted users to respond to their genuine needs.

Take, for instance, a hospital’s initiative to promote hand sanitation ( the desired behaviour change) to reduce iatrogenic, hospital-acquired infections (impact). What might be effective means toward that end, given a constrained budget? Would installing hand sanitizer dispenser at doorways suffice? Should the hospital, instead, equip its staff with mini sanitizer bottles to be worn on the body? Or, should the initiative focus on producing public health educational messaging to remind its health care staff the potential risk and harm to patients that improper hand sanitation can cause? Or, should it instead highlight the benefits and protection to handwashing for the clinicians? Should the program target both health care staff and visitors?

More often than not, we do know what can be done to remedy a problem or address a user need; we just don’t know which of many plausible solutions would prove effective for a particular situation. Deciding on which course of action to take depends a great deal on how we construe the problem and who the end-users are. This is important because the more specific we understand our users, the more targeted and tailored a program intervention can be designed, and the higher the likelihood that we can make a real contribution.

So, how can program designer design programs with users in mind? One design method is called User Persona.


What is User Persona?

A User Persona is a composite character constructed for the purpose of program design to represent a significant user group. A user persona is typically presented as a profile, detailing the constructed user’s background, histories, needs, aspirations, and values, among other attributes.

It helps if you can see some examples. Here’s one.

UX Questionnaire
(CC-BY Rosenfeld Media)

Here’s another.

A sample User Persona pulled from, by Kevin O’Connor of UserInsight.


You can find others using Google Image.

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 11.27.09 PM.png


The substance of User Persona should be empirical grounded, i.e., the designer should go out there and meet with people who could shed light on the program’s target users; the process to creating and refining a user persona is not fiction-writing.

A good User Persona gives its reader a good sense about the profiled user. This means that the information presented in User persona has to be highly specific and contextual. It is unlike the kind of information that can typically be learned from survey research (e.g., demographics), which tends to be summaries of particular measures. The most useful User Personas are often constructed from the extreme cases, the outliers, and fringes. This is because even users who are alike in their demographics can differ on important dimensions. In a recent developmental evaluation, the distinction technology-welcoming vs tech-adverse was helpful in guiding program decisions for even Millennial teachers.


Why bother?

User Persona is an important program design method for at least two reasons:

  1. The process to creating and refining a user persona brings program designers closer to its users. In fact, designers are encouraged to develop an emphatic understanding, i.e., first-hand experiences of the particular needs and situations user find themselves in. The old adage rings true here: to walk a mile in someone else’ shoes. Such experiential understanding may be the source of some important insights and further inform program directions
  2. A User Persona provides a reference point for evaluating how (and how well) a program is expected to work for particular users.


When to use/do it?

The User Persona method can be initiated during all phases of program development. It is especially helpful during initial planning or as a part of ongoing development:

  • Initial Planning: User Personas allow us to make some projection about how the studied user might access, benefit from, and participate in the program. Insights generated from the exercise would inform decisions to be made of the program.
  • Ongoing Development: User Personas allow us to evaluate how the studied user would access, benefit from, and participate in the  existing program.

In either case, User Personas provide a means for clients and program designers to engage in evaluative discussion. For a particular user, consider the following:

  • How might he/she experience the programs?
  • How might his/her experience differ from the assumed theory of change?
  • What implication might this person’s needs/values/assumptions/characteristics have on realizing  program outcomes?
  • Might this person experience any barriers or ‘hiccups’ as they participate in the program?
  • What could be meaningful adaptation/modifications for this user (and others like him/her)?


Okay, so how do I create a User Persona?

User Persona should be constructed from empirical data, i.e., they should not be works of fiction. And you should get as close as you can to targeted users. After all, it is not helpful to design a program for hypothetical users.

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 11.10.48 PM
Persona Core Poster from Creative Companion (CC-BYSA)

Christof Zürn of Creative Companion has constructed an excellent poster to illustrate the kinds of information that can be helpful to capture and represent in a User Persona. 

@UXLady also has a great post on creating User Personas.

Such information can be learned through interviews, observation, focus group, and even surveying. has a great section on which questions to ask during persona development here.

It is helpful as you can imagine to work with a number of different User Persona during program design.

Bottom Line

User Persona is an user-centered method in program design. It allows program evaluators and developers to interrogate a program from a particular user’s perspective. The User Persona should tell a story about the user’s history, needs, values, and aspirations; the substance of which should be grounded empirically.

Read More:

The Persona Core Poster – a service design tool

Personas: The Foundation of a Great User Experience.


Persona vs. Archetype: Which Is Better For Design Brainstorming?

Creating Personas.

Persona (user experience).

Are you curious about program design? Have you any particular questions about its methods and methodologies that you’d like us to write about? Drop me a note below or find me on Twitter @chiyanlam, where I curate tweets on evaluation, design, social innovation, and creativity. My thanks to Brian @StrongRoots_SK for inspiring this post. 

Until next time. Onwards!


By Chi Yan Lam

Dr. Chi Yan Lam is a Credentialed Evaluator and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of evaluation at the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Health Sciences, Queen’s University; he is also a full-time evaluator practicing in public service. He specializes in evaluating large-scale, complex programs and incorporates multi-, mixed- and design methods in his evaluations to answer questions of importance to program administrators and policy makers working on educational and social programs. His articles on evaluation have been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the American Journal of Evaluation and the Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation. He has been a holder of the professional designation in evaluation since 2014.

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