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Product & Engineering

How User Personas Guide a Great Duo User Experience

Customers frequently ask us how our teams so consistently make Duo’s products easy to use. Part of the answer is that we continually employ several UX research methods to connect us with users. Key among them is user personas, something we’ve used since the company’s early days.

What Are Personas?

A persona is a realistic description of a typical user. Duo’s engineers, designers and product managers rarely talk about “users.” Instead, we talk about how our personas would use a feature. “End user” and “IT administrator” don’t sound very personal, and those terms aren’t typically part of our conversation — our teams more likely would discuss, “How would Gary respond to this instruction?” or “Would Lee really set up this feature?”

We have a set of five personas. Each has a name, goals, pain points and a bit of bio info. They were developed through extensive UX research with real users, such as interviews, surveys, ethnographic on-site visits and thousands of comments during usability testing sessions.

Who Are Our Personas?

Duo’s teams develop products with these five familiar folks top of mind:

Lee the End User

Lee the End User

“I know security is important, but honestly, it’s never a top thing on my mind.” She becomes frustrated when security features slow or block her from getting to the applications she needs. She often makes guesses about what’s secure or not, based on past experience.

Henry the Help Desk Specialist

Henry the Help Desk Specialist

“I make sure Lee can access the tools she needs to do her work.” He handles support tickets, either solving problems or escalating them to Gary in just a few minutes. He knows every second Lee can’t work is lost productivity and growing frustration.

Gary the Systems Administrator

Gary the Systems Administrator

“The company counts on me to keep technology running, keep it secure and keep Lee happy.” He works mostly on scheduled IT projects to improve his company’s services. Security concerns may be all of his job, or just a part of it.

Max the Vendor Manager

Max the Vendor Manager

“I need to provide efficient, easy products to my Managed Service Provider company’s clients that give great business value.” His IT expertise is similar to Gary’s, but Max focuses on how to serve customers who are outside his own company. Scalability and easy rollout are high priorities.

Helen the CISO

Helen the CISO

“I support lines of business by ensuring Lee has secure and usable access to resources.” As Chief Information Security Officer, Helen’s responsible for protecting her company against cyber threats and data loss, and for improving the security posture through IT projects she champions.

How Do Personas Work in Practice?

Personas are a vital part of our user-centered culture. New employees meet them during onboarding. They are mentioned by name countless times every day in meetings, whiteboarding sessions and one-on-one conversation. As part of our shared vocabulary, personas are much easier to remember and build empathy for than some generic “users.”

Personas really help humanize the people we’re designing for. At our meetings, everyone in the room knows who we’re talking about when we say “Gary” or “Lee.” - Noureen Dharani, product designer

Product development puts personas at center stage. Requirements identify them in user stories, such as: “As Gary, I can access reports in CSV format from this screen easily.” Discussions grow out of these stories, delving into specifics such as which layout or instruction or button label Gary will find easiest to use — and why. Long-term familiarity with a realistic persona invokes people’s innate ability to think more clearly about tangible actions than abstract ones.

“I use them to talk about scenarios that our features will be used in, and to understand the context of use,” says Lulu Tang, a product designer. “They’re great for communicating that across my teams, too.”

Product Manager Trevor Hough says: “A lot of my persona use is guiding developers to better understand how Duo can help Gary make Lee’s life easier and more secure. Team debates around that question so often lead us to great solutions.”

Persona-driven thinking extends through Duo’s UX interview research and usability testing efforts. We often recruit real-life Henrys, Lees, Garys and Maxes as participants. The personas provide a helpful shorthand while also reminding us who we’re designing for.

“Before I arrived at Duo, I hadn't worked much in an environment that bought into user personas, and wasn’t familiar with how valuable they are,” says Bryan Witherspoon, Principal Software Engineer. “But now, I'm not sure how effective I would be as an engineer if I didn't have some sort of user persona document available when designing or building a feature.”

Ensuring ease of use across varied types of users doesn’t happen by accident at Duo. Personas help us remain focused on providing the products our real users need. We’re pretty sure Gary would agree.

User Personas FAQ

How detailed are the personas?
They need to be easily scannable and understandable, so their details all fit comfortably on one sheet of paper. That means some serious prioritizing and editing in the research process.

Aren’t they just educated guesses about users?
No. Many user interviews shape each persona’s heart, supplemented by additional insights from our Sales, Support and Product teams and a slew of published data. The mix of qualitative and quantitative data make them trustworthy tools for our teams.

How long does the research process take?
Typically, about two months. It depends on how quickly researchers can schedule interviews with users. How do we socialize the personas across the company? We talk about them openly, by name, as they’re being researched, which gives teams a preview. When a persona is ready, we roll it out at department and team meetings. They often appear as characters in employee workshops and presentations.

Do you ever change them after they’re rolled out?
We’re always improving personas as we discover new aspects of our users’ needs, goals and pain points. This comes from usability testing, research projects, support questions, beta testing and conversations with users.

Why is empathy with users so important?
The better our product managers, designers and engineers can understand and relate to customers’ pain points and goals, the more likely they’ll be utterly committed to serving their needs in an awesome way.

What don’t personas do for Duo?
Although we love our personas, we know they are archetypes. They don’t perfectly predict behavior or attitudes. Specific, actual users also surely have additional goals not described in the persona. We use other research methods such as user interviews to learn that information as we plan, develop and support our products.

Want to take part in a user interview?
Our personas are primarily based on interviews with real users. If you’d like to participate in a user interview, please email and tell us a bit about yourself and which Duo products you use. (We also interview some non-users, too.)

Where can I learn more about creating personas?
Two resources we recommend are Personas Make Users Memorable for Product Team Members from Nielsen Norman Group, and A Closer Look At Personas: What They Are And How They Work, Pt. 1 from Smashing Magazine.