Personas: learn how to discover your audience, understand them, and pivot to address their needs

May 19, 2023

Clear communication through any channel is key. The best way to do this includes understanding and empathizing with your audience, reaching them, seeing how they use your products or services, and continuing a conversation with them at an appropriate level and cadence. While this all sounds easy enough in a classroom setting, the real-world application can often be daunting. Where do you even start? How do you discover your audience, what they need to know, how they are using your agency’s tools or products, and at what level they need help or clarity?

With these questions in mind, I met with five experts from across the federal government to gather insight and expertise about how they discovered their audience, understood them, and pivoted to address their communications and services. These conversations ranged from informational approaches to user experience (UX) insights on the operations of government tools and products. Their advice amounts to these five key takeaways:

  • Discover your audience by leveraging agency knowledge
  • Sketch a proto-persona
  • Start thinking about the audience’s journey
  • Do your research and create your persona
  • Keep updating your persona

A user persona is a fictional representation of a type of user with whom you want to communicate. A user persona is not a real person – but it represents the needs and attributes of real people (the users of your agency’s tool, product, or communications).

A blue and white template from the USDA has placeholder fields for a persona name, photo, demographics, and a couple of user story description paragraphs. It also has short bulleted lists to add goals, motivations, frustrations, previous experience, and expectations.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

1. Discover your audience by leveraging agency knowledge

“You have to know who you are talking to before you start doing the talking,” noted Holland Gormley, outreach and education specialist at the U.S. Copyright Office’s Public Information and Education division, and former co-lead of the Communicators community. Determining your audience is the key to effective communications. How exactly do you do that?

In many organizations, internal expertise is your best starting point. “You’re never just getting started in government,” Gormley explained. “We’ve been working on this government thing since 1776.” Talk to the subject matter experts at your agency. Who do they think the audience is? Spend some time with your call center or external contact center folks – who do they hear from the most? What questions do they receive? Leverage internal analytics capabilities. Who registers for your events, your webinars? Who visits your website? What’s the buzz on social media? If your agency conducted surveys, what did they learn and from whom?

Your agency already has more information about your audience than you suspect. The trick is tracking it down and then taking it to the next level. “Who should be connecting with you that doesn’t even know who you are?” Gormley said.

Beth A. Martin, a digital services expert (UX Designer) at the Office of Personnel Management, co-lead of the Web Managers community, and member of the original team who drafted a persona how-to article, noted that you should also consider your “competitors.” Where else is your audience getting their information, their services? What do these organizations provide that you don’t, and how does that reflect on unmet audience needs?

2. Sketch a proto-persona

You know (or think you know) who your audience is. Now you’re ready to  (digitally) “put pen to paper” and develop what is called a proto-persona. A proto-persona is effectively your assumptions about your audience or users – a way of collecting assumptions and hypotheses about what you think you know into a manageable outline for verification and further research.

“When you talk with stakeholders or subject matter experts, they will almost always have an idea of who their product is for, or who they think the users are. …You almost always start out with at least a sketch of an idea that the stakeholders have, that you can use to build out who you think you need to talk to and what sorts of questions you need to ask. During that process, you will find out where gaps are (or might be), and see where early assumptions are validated—and which assumptions need to be challenged.”
— Acting Division Chief of Design Wendy A.F.G. Stengel, Office of the Chief Information Officer, Library of Congress

At the Copyright Office, Gormley leveraged quantitative data aggregated from public-facing websites, surveys, data from copyright registrations, internal analytics, information posted by users on social media, and census data to create a user snapshot. She then augmented this information with statistics from the Bureau of Labor to piece together the size of her potential audience. “The more snapshots you can put together,” Gormley explained, “the better you can understand your audience.”

Of course, the proto-persona leads to the next step: You think you know your users and what they need to do – but do you really?

3. Start thinking about the audience’s journey

As you’re collecting audience information, focus on your audience’s journey. What tasks are they trying to accomplish through your product and how does that fit into the scope of their goals? Martin is passionate about developing user personas with an eye to “the hero’s journey”[1].

The hero’s journey starts with a call to action that leads to an eventual character transformation through challenges and temptations, revelations, and atonement; at the end of the hero’s journey, the person has learned something, coming full circle. As Martin pointed out, this journey is not unique to figures of myth. Your users will need information from your agency or need to use one of your products or services. This starts their journey with you. Your job (as the mythical helper figure) is to figure out the challenges that lie in their way and to find a better way to guide them through their journey towards eventual transformation, which, in this case, is getting the service or information they need.

“What you are trying to do is identify the characters who are interacting with your service,” Martin explains, “and tell their story.” Part of this is acknowledging that your agency’s portion in their story is only a small part of the overall tale. Your users may be dealing with significant life events, and they are interacting with your service or application out of a greater need. “Your application is not the end all and be all – people are on a larger journey,” Martin said. “How do they feel about this journey and how do you provide that experience that helps them get through what they need to get done in order to move on?”

Six columns show persona summaries with photos for: researcher, policy make, small producer, information professional, agri-business executive, citizen

U.S. Department of Agriculture

4. Do your research and create your persona

Depending on your agency’s products, capabilities, and budget, this is the step where you might be able to sit down with actual users. Note that agencies don’t (or can’t) always do this.

Engaging members of the public and conducting interviews requires careful planning: You may need to talk to your agency’s legal group and its Office of the General Counsel (OGC) to know what guidelines and requirements to follow. Some agencies also have Institutional Review Boards who review and sign off on research plans.

There are also strict rules around incentivization (i.e., paying people or otherwise rewarding them for their time.) You will need to carefully consult with your agency’s legal team to ensure that you adhere to the applicable regulations.

After Gormley, who you met earlier, gathered and analyzed her Copyright Office data, she determined that three types of users visit the Copyright Office:

  1. Those who are just starting with copyright services and need a lot of help,
  2. Those who are somewhat familiar with the Copyright Law and services and have specific questions, and
  3. Those who are already experts.

Each requires different targeted communications. “We’re catching people early, we’re serving their needs, and we’re educating them up (ideally) to the next level of complexity, the next level of awareness,” Gormley said.

Communications Officer Ellis Brachman, of the Office of the Chief Information Officer at the Library of Congress, encouraged, “Don’t be afraid to just dive in, but also test assumptions.” Brachman also noted that “all too often people think one size fits all.” It does not.

Digital Strategy Director Natalie Buda Smith, of the Office of the Chief Information Officer at the Library of Congress, and current UX Community co-lead, added: “Personas should be based in research, be it performance data, behavioral data, using research methods like surveys, or contextual interviews, there is a whole range of sources of data and/or research methods to get the information in order to shape your personas.” Smith and her team performed a series of more than 20 contextual interviews to gather qualitative data combined with an extensive survey to help them create and prioritize user personas for the next generation Library Collections Access Platform. These interviews and surveys were essential because, as Smith noted, “A lot of times, we have only a slice of the entire experience. … it always helps to have data to confirm and validate.”

As Gormley explained, a persona can be as detailed as you need it to be. A persona can range from a paragraph to multiple pages. “All user personas should cover what’s important to your imaginary character,” Gormley said, “and what needs they have that they are trying to meet either through your product or service or elsewhere, where they are already going for information, any misconceptions they might have. . . . at the core of it, you want to be thinking about what is the question, issue, or need that they are trying to have addressed.”

User interviews

If you have set up some sessions with your users, Stengel and Smith detailed some best practices to help you conduct effective sessions.

“When you are talking with people, you should be looking for what they are doing more than just what they are saying,” Stengel said. “People are not the best, most reliable lenses onto their own behavior.” Because of that, you want to get the people to interact with the product while you observe them. Where are they getting confused, frustrated? Where are your assumptions just plain wrong?

Stengel provided an example from her prior work on a government agency website that helped underserved communities access healthcare. After building the website, the developers and designers were surprised to see very low usage. When they went to the actual clinics to talk to patients, the reason became clear. The intended audience presumed that “get preventative healthcare” meant that they were being prevented from getting the needed care. “It’s not that these people were unintelligent or uneducated or anything else, it’s just that in their context they were so used to hearing ‘no’ when they needed to get something,” Stengel explained. After this interaction with the users, the team changed the label to “Get Healthcare” and use of the website soared.

Smith noted that you don’t necessarily have to be right across the table from a user to watch them use an application. “You can have somebody give them a setting, a context, and then …  ask some questions like, what are you looking at, how does this fit into your workflow . . . . We’ve used that technique for decades.”

What you’re looking for is patterns – yes – but you are also looking for the outliers and how they might match an unidentified business need or even spark another type of research method.

5. Keep updating your persona

You’ve identified your audience, made your proto-persona, done your research, and have a fully formed persona to help you address your audiences’ needs. You’re done, right? Wrong.

“We shouldn’t be taking for granted our thinking in positions,” Brachman noted. Just because something is true now, doesn’t mean it doesn’t morph, doesn’t evolve alongside your community and our world. For example, the world before the pandemic and after it is markedly different and a lot of best practices have had to catch up to the hybridization of work and availability of newly online services.

“To me, it’s really about iteration,” Smith explained. It’s about maturity as well. Sometimes a persona remains static, but many do not. “The beauty of communication is that you can always refine it,” Gormley enthused. You didn’t just create a persona and check off something on your to-do list. Much like producing a digital product, you’ve created an active, iterative, living testimonial to your users and you must keep pace as they evolve. “I think we just need to realize that even though we might be the only game in town, it doesn’t mean that we can drop the ball on people,” Martin said. “It’s great that we’re building personas. It’s great that we care about our audience, but do not let it stagnate. Just like when you put up a web page or a website, you’re not done. It’s always, always updating.” To continue the conversation about building a persona and customer experience, join the Communicators and User Experience communities of practice.

What additional resources are available to me?

Where can I see examples of a government created persona?

This example of a persona created by the National Archives and Records Administration is for a museum visitor named Olivia. On the left, the persona lists three frustrations about not being able to find the information she needs, three desired website features with bars to indicate what level of importance they have for her, her level of technical expertise, and three kinds of computer and mobile devices that she uses. On the right, it states her main goal of seeing the U.S. Constitution, a list of user stories of related tasks that she'd like to be able to do at the museum, and it ends with a quote. At the bottom left is the NARA logo, full name of the agency, and a URL to find additional user personas.

National Archives and Records Administration

Where can I get a persona template?


  1. Campbell, Joseph. (1949) 2008. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, Calif.: New World Library.