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Personas are a model used to describe users' goals, skills, abilities, technical experience and context. They are detailed descriptions of archetypical users constructed out of well-understood, highly specific patterns of data about real people. A persona is not based on an individual - it is a construct developed through a detailed process, not the result of a search for the "right" individual (see persona creation for more on this). They are used by the design team (and larger project team) to describe, and keep front and center the user(s) for whom the system will be built.
The goals of creating and using personas are to make user-centered design possible and to communicate what is being learned with the larger team. They put a face on the user - a memorable, engaging, and actionable image that serves as the design target. They convey information about the user to your product team in ways that other artifacts cannot. Personas will help you, your team, and your organization become more user focused.
"Interaction design is a complex and difficult craft and requires good tools like any other. The popularity of personas has exploded because they are the foundational tool upon which the practice of interaction design rests. Interaction design is about making a particular group of humans effective at achieving a narrow set of goals. Because using personas is a remarkably powerful technique for bringing those humans and their objectives into focus, it becomes the most critical tool for designing the behavior of software." - Alan Cooper, Cooper.com
Make sense of research findings
Plan your product
Explore design solutions
Evaluate your solutions
Support the release of your product
Communicate with the project team and beyond
Remember, the goal of personas is to keep the user in view throughout the product lifecycle. Personas are not perfect for everything, but are very useful when utilized properly.
The goal is to develop a precise description of your user(s) and what he wishes to accomplish. A good persona will enable you to build a product which solves a real problem and that people love.