Lene Nielsen’s Personas


The usage of a participatory and user centric design are becoming an integral part of the development of HCI and Pervasive Computing systems. The construction of Personas is one of the methods in User Centric design. This post presents Personas according to Lene Nielsen’s work and papers published in different media.


The Pervasive Computing field (exactly where I work) has many overlapping interests and methods with HCI, to the point that a paper about some research in any of the two fields, could easily be tuned and presented in journals and conferences of the other field. The HCI researchers have embrace (in some places more than in others) methodologies like ethnography, participatory and user centric design. Then, the Pervasive Computing researchers have also taken note and used these methodologies in their researches.

Some of the most important contributors to this line of thought have been the Scandinavian countries. Their researchers have taken tools and practices from other fields like anthropology and literary studies into technology studies, specially HCI and Pervasive Computing. Therefore, as a Pervasive Computing researcher at a Danish university I cannot avoid touching on these subjects.

So far, I have used ethnographic studies to elicit information about the future users for whom I will develop my projects. I have also carried out a Future Workshop in order to share some of the initial ideas for the whole PhD, and prioritize them. In this ethnographic studies I used observation, note taking, unstructured interviews, and semi-structured interviews. In the near future I will be using Grounded Theory (according to what my supervisor suggested).

However, at the moment we are working in the first version of what we call a Grid Awareness system (there will be posts about this later). And we are specifically in the design phase. Following the established tradition, methods of participatory and user-centric design are to be followed, issue that takes us to build Personas. This fits perfectly to the making of ethnographic studies, as the Personas are to be built from the collected data.

The Danish researcher Lene Nielsen has made extensive research in the subject. This post will present her work in a structured way, taking the substance of many papers and articles available in the web. First, the post introduces Nielesen’s definition of Persona. Second, the post presents the context for using Personas. Third, Nielsen’s 10 steps to Personas will be briefly presented. Fourth, the post presents a concrete example from my own project. Fifth, I present some common discussions. And last, I present some related work from other authors.


This section presents Nielsen’s description of Personas, both from the literary studies and the user centric design point of view.

The early works of Nielsen on Personas are based in literary studies [1]. According to these, her works present Personas as literary rounded characters. A writer introduces these rounded characters to the reader at the psychological, physiological and sociological level. Moreover, a rounded character possesses multiple traits in each of these levels, which could be seen metaphorically as “a number of voices interacting with and against each other”. The expected result of using a rounded character is that the reader feels engagement toward it, the writing is much more grounded, and still, due to the sometimes opposing voices, the character’s actions are unpredictable.

Later in her work, as she moves closer to technology design [2], she presents a more detailed description of Personas. For a technology designer the Persona has all the properties of a rounded character, and they can be presented in a more structured way providing a bodily expression (name, age, picture), describing the psyche (extrovert, introvert), establishing a background (studies, occupation, family), presenting the emotions, and presenting opposing traits and peculiarities. The Persona is a character that the readers believe in and whose actions spring from the character’s traits and experiences.

Using Personas

This section presents Nielsen’s way of using Personas in the design process.

Nielsen claims that Personas can be used in the design of a technological project. They function as a vehicle to create empathy and identification, as a storage of information, and as a method to represent market shares. Once the design team engages with the Personas with empathy the Personas is remembered all the way through. Moreover, as the Personas store information, it’s easier to read their descriptions instead of going to the row data. Last, the market share represented by a Personas is always kept in focus by the design team.

According to Nielsen [2], Personas are to be used in conjunction to Needs and Situations, and Scenarios. The “Needs” relate to the needs the user has for using the system, and the “Situations” relate to the circumstances the Personas are in when using the system. There can be any number of combinations between needs and situations. Nielsen defines “Scenarios” as creative tools to explore design ideas, and to support communication. An Scenario is a story structured around a main Persona that is motivated to use the system in a specific situation, with a specific intention and goal.

Though Nielsen’s graphic shows the Personas as preconditions to the “Needs and Situations”, they can be developed in parallel. However, the association of a Persona with a couple need-situation has to be done once the Personas are defined.

There is one more element not present in the graphic, that’s also important to consider. Nielsen requires Personas to be grounded. Meaning that the traits and main characteristics have to come from captured information about real users. The graphic is missing another step before the construction of Personas which we can call “Data Capture”. The data capture can be performed through ethnographic or qualitative studies.

Building Personas

Nielsen proposes a “10 steps” approach to Personas. The following list outlines the 10 steps and the description can be found in the linked document or the article.

  • Step 1 – Finding the Users: Capture real user’s data from ethnographic or other qualitative studies.
  • Step 2 – Building a Hypothesis: Identify the ways and context when the real user interacts with the system.
  • Step 3 – Verification: Break your information down into candidate Personas.
  • Step 4 – Finding Patterns: Try grouping candidates, breaking down a candidate into several, and finding new ones from the real user’s data.
  • Step 5 – Constructing Personas: Define the physics, the psyche, the background and the traits for each candidate.

The following steps relate to the usage of Personas in the bigger picture of user centric design:

  • Step 6 – Defining Situations: Identify the needs and situations, and relate them to the Personas.
  • Step 7 – Validation and Buy-in: Socialize and ensure that all participants agree on the descriptions and the situations.
  • Step 8 – Dissemination of Knowledge: Share the Personas, situations and data with all the organization; not only the design team.
  • Step 9 – Creating Scenarios: Describe what happens in a given situation, when a given Persona with certain needs uses the system.
  • Step 10 – Ongoing Development: Validate the Personas, needs, situations and scenarios every time new data about the users is captured.


–ongoing work–

Discussions About Personas

  1. Personas and Culture: Nielsen comes across the subject at a question/answer session hosted at the HCI-Vistas-Global YahooGroup. In this session a participant called Dinesh Katre (possibly of Indian origings) poses the following question: ‘I have always found it difficult to visualize or understand the characters illustrated in the books of P. G. Woodhouse because all are British personalities and I have not lived in Briton so long to understand these personalities as they are quite culture specific.’ (29-01-08). In the answer Nielsen recognizes lack of knowledge in the matter and she recommends “looking at movies”.

    Later on, Nielsen carries out an experiment where she asked the participant to find a picture for one single Personas description in a text. She also asks the participants about the strategies they used to analyse the text. The possible strategies are: based on interpretation, based on description and based on former knowledge. All the participants chose relatively similar pictures for the given Personas description. The strategies “based on interpretation” and “based on description” where the most commonly used. Nielsen concludes that there are no mayor differences in the way different cultures interpret a Personas description.

    Note: I strongly disagree with the experiment and shouldn’t be taken as a serious prove. Having lived in many different countries I am aware of the fact that the same personal trait can have two different reasons in two different sources. More on this later.

    When asked about the role of Personas in out-sourcing, Nielsen maintains that the Personas description should be sent along with the requirements for the system to build.

    Note: This takes us back to the 10 steps for Personas. If the Personas descriptions are sent over to the off-shore development team, then steps 7-10 of the are rendered useless, and the usage of Personas would only be useful for designing the scenarios (and use cases). If the Personas approach is to be used in an off-shore endeavour, the technical leader and some of the more important developers have to be part of the design effort; participating in steps 1-6.

  2. Archetype, Stereotype and Personas: Nielsen’s presentation of this point is rather confusing. First, she starts saying that both an archetype and a stereotype are person descriptions (no Personas) made of a single character trait. However, later on she says that a stereotype is a “slightly more oversimplified [something missing?] than a archetype”. It seems to me like a contradiction.

Related Work

Related work has been carried out by several researchers both on the Personas concept, and on the literary concept of a character. This section discusses some of their contributions.

Alan Cooper introduces the concept of scenarios as “a concise description of a Personas using a software based product to achieve a goal”. He also makes a description of Personas as hypothetical archetypes of actual users, defined and differentiated by their goals. The Personas description includes the user skills, the personal goals, the practical goals and the corporate goals. According to Nielesen, Cooper’s method is limited because it focuses only in the working life and goals.

John M. Carrol present a slightly modified concept of scenarios: scenarios are stories – stories about users and their activities. Carrol works with the concept of users. He defines the user via the organizational role, goals, actions and his interaction with the system. However, Carrol focuses his work on scenarios. According to Carrol scenarios should look at tasks context, activity, prior knowledge, reasoning, and experience. In her analizys, Nielsen thinks that Carrol’s scenarios are plot oriented and difficult to engage with. She also points out that the causality realtion between actions is not kept.

Lagos Egri works with the concept of “human character” and defines as made up of several traits in different human dimensions. A human character lays on three human dimensions: the physical, the psychological and the sociological dimension (it seems like if Nielsen has based her work on these conception of a human character). The following graphics enables a better understanding of the traits in each dimension:

Andrew Horton describes a character as a cacophony of voices; it’s the sum of the character’s consciousness and self-consciousness. This description implies that a character is a process, a poliphony, and a social discourse that belongs and interacts with a culture and its many voices. For Horton, the description of a character should be made of a description of the culture (place and time can refer us to the predominant culture at that point), the personal elements, and the interpersonal elements. The cacophony of voices, place of the character’s desicion making process, happens once the character, the circumstances and the chance meet. Therefore a character’s reaction is completely unexpected.


[1] – L. Nielsen, “From user to character: an investigation into user-descriptions in scenarios,” in DIS ’02: Proceedings of the conference on Designing interactive systems. New York, NY, USA: ACM Press, 2002, pp. 99-104. [Online].

[2] – L. Nielsen, “Engaging Personas and Narrative Scenarios,” Copenhagen, Denmark: Department of Informatics, Copenhagen Business School, 2004. [Online].

[3] – QA Session on User Persona Method with Lene Nielsen. [Online]

[4] – Personas – as part of a user-centred innovation process. [Online]

[5] – Culture and Personas Perception. [Online]

[6] – Ten Steps to Personas. [Online]


3 thoughts on “Lene Nielsen’s Personas

  1. Thank you Juan for summing up my work. I am sure not many have read my Ph.d. thesis, so nice to know that someone did.From my thesis on my work has changed slightly but a lot still remain. As you write I relate my construction of personas somewhat on Egri, but also on the definition of engagement as presented by Murray Smith.I do understand you confusion about archetypes and stereotypes and it might not be well described. They do share the same condition of allowing descriptions of only one character trait.In your summery you look at my writings and do not distinguish between the theoretical work, my experience from practice and my practical advice. Some of the things that I have written I have written in a special context. This goes for the advice about sending personas together with offshore projects. In an ideal world someone from the off-shore team should participate, but that might not be likely and if the designers at least had a personas description to relate to, they will be better off than without anything at all.The experiment is an experiment. I redid with more participants from all over the globe. I have not yet written about that, these had the same strategies, but provide more nuanced photos to illustrate the persona. My conclusion is that it seems as if experience plays a bigger role than culture.

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