Managing stakeholders through persona

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This article describes the idea behind a persona, the application of the tool and the limitations involved when using it. A persona is a one-page description of a fictive character, that represents selected stakeholders. This description usually contains information such as name, age, occupation, environment, daily task, likes/dislikes etc. (Martin & Hanington, 2012). A stakeholder is defined as any individual or group, that has an interest or concert in a specific project, issue or organization (Standard for Program Management – Fourth Edition). This article discuss the benefits of using persons in project management in relation to managing stakeholders. Personas can contribute to understanding needs and goals of stakeholders, ease the communication of results/decisions and create an overview of the stakeholders and more. Furthermore, this article contains a comprehensive guide with five steps of how to develop personas for a specific project, with the purpose of assisting the project manager (Adlin & Pruitt, 2010) (Tomlin, 2018). Finally, the article discusses the limitations, when using the tool. Developing personas can be time and resource consuming and it can take many years to master the tool. The reliability of personas is discussed and the risk of creating “Frankenstein personas”, that doesn’t represent any real stakeholders. Finally, it is mentioned how persons is a very subject and creative tool and therefore not all will love the tool and people should not be forced to use it (Fuglerud et al., 2020).


In 1983 Allan Cooper was the first to implement the use of Personas in a Software Development project and popularized it in his book “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity”. The project participants quickly saw the potential in using these “Personas” and naturally began referring to them during their project work as a reference to the users (Cooper, 2003). The tool “Personas” is mainly used in design projects and the project participants together create a fictive profile to represent the stakeholders. This ensures a user centric perspective and humanizes the design process when doing design projects. However, the method can also contribute to project management, helping with the problems of; creating an overview of the most important/valuable stakeholders, make it easier to engage the stakeholders during the project and ease the communication and understanding of the stakeholders needs, when using personas as a boundary object (Martin & Hanington, 2012).

This article will first describe the idea behind personas, including the benefits of the tool and how it can contribute to project management, then a guide of how to develop personas for projects and finally the limitations involved when using personas.

The idea Behind Personas

What is a persona and what are the benefits of using them? A persona is usually a one-page description of a fictive character, that represents an important stakeholder in the project. The description typically includes the following:

  • A bio with basic information: name, age, education and occupation.
  • An Illustration of how the persona could look. Often a stock photo of sketch, to avoid any connection to a real identity person.
  • A quote summarizing one of the main points about the persona.
  • In-depth description about life situation, environment, goals and behaviour (Martin & Hanington, 2012).

What is a stakeholder

Before going into too much detail with personas, it is firstly important to understand what/who a stakeholder is. In the “Standard for Program Management – Fourth Edition” a stakeholder is defined as the following.

“A stakeholder is an individual, group or organization that may affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity, or outcome of a project, program or portfolio” (Standard for Program Management – Fourth Edition).

Stakeholders can be many different people, both intern and extern to the project and have different influence, goals and impact on a project. Therefore, it is important to consider which stakeholders that are most important and has the highest impact when developing personas, since all stakeholders won’t be equally relevant for the project. (Standard for Program Management – Fourth Edition).

The benefits of using personas in project management

Now that a stakeholder has been defined, we can look more into personas. Personas are used to create project objectives based on individual stakeholder needs. When developing a persona, the behavior pattern amongst an individual or group is observed through research and the main needs, behaviors and goals are then defined. When narrowing down the most essential points in personas, it is easier to ensure, that the correct requirements are being prioritized, for the most valuable stakeholders within the project (Martin & Hanington, 2012). The initial goals when developing personas can be narrowed down to the following:

  • The personas are relevant to your project and your business goals.
  • The personas are based on data or clearly identified assumptions.
  • The personas are engaging, enlightening or even inspiring to your organization (Adlin, T et. al., 2010)

Other than ensuring that all stakeholders are understood and remembered, it is also important that the different motives of the stakeholders are understood and that the project manager is aware of these. The personas can make it easier for the project manager, to manage all the stakeholders and get an overview of their different agendas and motives.

“The program manager should be the champion for change in the organization and understand the motives of each stakeholder who could attempt to alter the course of the program or intentionally derail it and prevent the program from realizing one or more of its intended benefits or outcomes. ” (The Standard for Program Management – Fourth Edition)

By applying personas in a project, the communication between the stakeholders can be eased. Personas can be used as a reference, when communicating research summaries to clients, which makes the results seem more persuasive (Martin & Hanington, 2012). Furthermore, the personas can act representative for the absent stakeholders in a project. This ensures that despite the absence of the stakeholders, their most prioritized values are still being considered when making decisions (Woods et al., 2017). Overall the use of personas can help the project manager make better decisions, as it is stated in “The Essential Persona Lifecycle: Your Guide to Building and Using Personas”.

“Although having personas participate in discussions may feel a bit forced and awkward at first, this technique ensures that you never stray too far from the customer data that serve as the lifeblood of good decisions” (Adlin & Pruitt, 2010).

Similar tool in project management

As mentioned above, personas are mostly used in design projects, but a similar tool is used within project management, which is why adding the persona perspective wouldn’t be too unfamiliar for the project manager. Within project/program management a “Program Stakeholder classification” and a “Stakeholder register” are common known tools. The stakeholder register contains many of the same elements as a persona, like organizational position, program role and other characteristics. A stakeholder register is developed using the following table.

caption Figure made by Josefine Schwab Rolver, content from “The Standard for Program Management — Fourth Edition, 2017” table 5-1 stakeholder register.

If the project manager was to include personas in a project, they could be viewed as the “Other characteristics”, but with a more in depth and personalized description of the stakeholder. This tool does argue, that the implementation of personas would be relevant, since the project managers already benefits from using a similar tool. (The Standard for Program Management — Fourth Edition).

Time and resources when developing personas

An important part of defining a persona is to remember only to include the information, that is relevant to the specific project. The information should be kept short and to the point, to ensure that the most important points stand out. A key rule is that the text amount should be kept to a one eye span, so that the information easily can be captured (Lidwell et al., 2010). When forming one or several personas, it’s important to do the correct research for the foundation of the persona. The information needed for the person can be achieved through both qualitative or quantitative data in form of interviews, observations, focus groups, demographics or questionnaires (Fuglerud et al., 2020).

Developing personas is time demanding and can in some cases take up to one moth to develop. It is important that the personas are developed early in the project and that they are continuously updated and improved throughout the project, as more knowledge about the stakeholders is gained (Lidwell et al., 2010). Furthermore, it’s important to remember, that personas are created for a specific project and they are not supposed to be reused for other projects. This means that when a new project is started, both time and recourses have to be allocated for the development of new personas (Fuglerud et al., 2020).

Application of personas

The development of personas can be hard and confusing, but it is possible to break down the process and make it more approachable. There are many different approaches and suggestions for how this can be done and not one can be marked as the correct on. In this article it was chosen to combine the structures described in “The Essential Persona Lifecycle: Your Guide to Building and Using Personas by (Adlin & Pruitt, 2010) and “UX Optimization - chapter 5: How to Create a Persona” by (Tomlin, 2018). These two books have different perspectives on how to approach the process, where Tomlin has a lot of focus on the preparation and Adlin & Pruitt more focus on the development.

However, it is important to remember that this structure is a suggestion for a very thorough persona development, that is specifically beneficial for a project manager. It can be beneficial to develop two sets of personas, one for the project team and one for the Project Manager, that includes extra information, such as power and interest of the persona. It is important to remember that the development should be adapted to the resources that are available within the specific project.

Below an overview of the structure for developing personas can be seen.


Illustration created by Josefine Schwab Rolver, inspired by Adlin & Pruitt, 2010 figure 4.1, the six-step persona creation process. 
  • Preparation and data collection
    • Secondary data: Perform an online research and find relevant data, that could contribute with information for the personas. This could be articles, report, videos and other sources.
    • Primary data: Primary data can be time consuming and expensive to collect, so it is important to be structured and well prepared for this step. Create an overview of which stakeholders, that should be/want to be engaged in the data collection process. Determine what methods to use to collect the data, examples of these could be surveys, observations, interviews or focus groups.
    • Perform the data collection based on the preparation (Tomlin, 2018).
  • Process the collected data
    • It is beneficial to process the data as quickly as possible, once it has been collected. The data should be structured in categories, that in the end will be representing the different stakeholders. For structuring the data, it is recommended to use an “affinity diagram”. It can be good to ask the question “does this category represent something unique?"
    • This is a subjective exercise where the data is interpreted, so there is a risk of misinterpretation of the data. Therefor this is one of the most important steps to get right when developing personas, as it created the foundation for the further development.
  • Create bullet point personas
    • Based on the above, create personas described in bullet points.
    • Avoid adding too narrow details to the personas at this point, to ensure that the main points are clearly communicated.
  • Prioritize personas and involve stakeholders
    • Present the bullet point personas to selected stakeholders. Make sure to communicate the purpose of the personas and include, that they are mainly for internal use.
    • Get feedback on the personas and make the stakeholders prioritize which personas that are most important. It can be hard to make the stakeholders agree, but remember to not interferer too much, as it is important, that this is based on the stakeholder’s opinions.
  • Develop into personas
    • Implement the changes based on the feedback received from the stakeholders.
    • Define what information and descriptions, that you want for your personas, such as name, age, occupation, likes, pains, daily tasks etc. It is individual for each project what is relevant to include, so make sure the information and descriptions are suitable for your project. Here it can be beneficial to get inspiration from the stakeholder registration table and include some of the elements, that creates a good overview for the project manager.
    • Enrich the personas with more detailed descriptions and create the narrative that is surrounding the personas. An example of how a persona temple could be structured can be seen on the picture below.
    • Validate the personas with the stakeholders one last time. (Adlin & Pruitt, 2010)


Illustration created by Josefine Schwab Rolver, persona template for project managers.

Limitations when using personas

One of the main limitations when using personas, is the reliability of personas. How do we convince people, that the personas are based on actual research, when they are only displayed for a small amount of the data? How do we ensure that the personas do capture the most important points from the stakeholders? It is an ongoing discussion if personas do meet the standards of the industry in relation to accountability. This is something to keep in mind as project manager and ensure that the personas do appear reliable and credible when being presented (T. W. Howard, 2019).

Another limitation when using personas is, that it can take many years to master the tool. Therefore, it is not always beneficial the first time the tool is used and there is a risk, that the tool will only be used this one time. Mastering the tool can take many years, but the more the tool is used, the better an understanding and value from the tool the user will gain. This means that using personas comes with a risk of failure, especially the first time the tool is used. This can be failure in two different ways: forgetting to use the personas during the project or developing non-useful personas, that are not representative for the stakeholders. (Cooper, 2003). When developing personas, a large amount of data has to be condensed into a few personas. Here there is a risk of developing a so called “Frankenstein Persona”. This is a non-representative persona, that does not describe/represent any actual stakeholders. This means that the project team will be aiming towards the wrong target according to their stakeholders, which can in worst case lead to project failure (Fuglerud et al., 2020).

Another element that should be considered when applying the use of personas to a project is, that the personas should not be taking too much focus away from the actual stakeholders. Personas can not be seen as direct representative/replacement for a stakeholder, they can not contribute with all the same things, as an actual stakeholder can. As mentioned above personas are a condensed representation of something far more complex. Therefore, it is important to continuously involve the actual stakeholder through the process and receive their feedback. If the stakeholders are not involved, there is a risk that they will lose interest in the project and the outcome doesn’t end as intended (Fuglerud et al., 2020).

Finally, it is important to state, that personas never will be universally loved and respected amongst the people involved in a project. When using the tool in a project, it is important to not force the project members to constantly use the tool and accept that it at sometimes will be forgotten. It is important to evaluate the specific project and the context and not to force the application of the tool onto the team (Fuglerud et al., 2020).

“Although your personas can capture the attention and imagination of your organization, some of your team members are going to resist them. Personas will not appeal to nor be useful to everyone” - (Fuglerud et al., 2020).

Annotated bibliography

  • Adlin, T., & Pruitt, J. The Essential Persona Lifecycle: Your Guide to Building and Using Personas. Elsevier, 10.1016/C2009-0-62475-2 2010.

The book provides a comprehensive guide to personas, covering the process from creating, using and evaluating the personas. Especially the use and evaluation hasn’t been the main focus for this article in relation to application, therefor looking into these sections is recommended. The book includes case studies and examples of the use of personas in real life projects. A chapter about the case study of games for kids can be found.

This book provides a guide on the principles and practices of program management, that support the good practices of program management. The books describe the definition of a program and the organs surrounding it, like projects and portfolios. In this article, chapter five – stakeholder engagement, has mainly been used. Further reading about the role of the program manager, benefits, strategies and governances can be found in the book.

This article discus the book “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum”, also written by Allan Cooper. Cooper explores the history and evolution of personas. He describes how the personas first originated in a project he was working on, then how people reacted to using them and the challenges that came along. Through the article cooper refers to the first personas he developed and how they were integrated in his projects. The article provides an interesting historical overview and describes the importance of personas.

This article critically reflects on the persona tool. It is criticized how personas often rely on assumption, that whole design projects are then based on. It is discussed how personas can be excluding and not representative for the diverse use, in relation to inclusive design. The article provides an example of how co-creation can create a better user engagement as an alternative to personas.

Additional references

  • Lidwell, W., Holde, K., & Butler, J. Universal Principles of Design, 2010.
  • Woods, L., Duff, J., Cummings, E., Walker, K., Woods, L., Duff, J., Cummings, E., & Walker, K. The Development and Use of Personas in a User-Centred mHealth Design Project, 2017.
  • T. W. Howard, "When Is Persona Design Accountable?," IEEE International Professional Communication Conference (ProComm), Aachen, Germany, 2019, pp. 139-140, doi: 10.1109/ProComm.2019.00031.
  • Tomlin, W. Craig. “How to Create a Persona.” Ux Optimization, Apress, pp. 47–61, 2018. doi:10.1007/978-1-4842-3867-7_5.
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