Crafting User Personas: A Case Study

I attended a presentation at the 2014 HighEdWeb Conference called “Let’s face it: We’re not 16 anymore” that completely changed how I looked at making digital content for Pacific Lutheran University’s prospective students.

“We were surprised by how quickly teens create their first impression, how often it does not match our impression, and how that attitude carries throughout their admissions process.”

University websites have a wide variety of stakeholders, from current students, to faculty, to alumni, to staff, to community leaders, and so on. What higher ed digital experience professionals need to realize is that, on top of serving these audiences, every single public-facing page on our site is a prospective admissions page for a 16 year old. So while universities are selling tickets to an event, or celebrating a faculty award, or showcasing  an online magazine, we have to be thinking “is this a good admissions page for a prospective student?”

If you strip everything else away, a university’s primary product is a degree. So, again, that makes its primary audience prospective students. Without engaging that core demographic, a university can never succeed properly. Of course, most universities have thriving Admissions, Student Life, Student Employment, Psychology and Sociology Departments – but how often do we tap into their experience and knowledge when crafting digital experiences? Not often enough.

My Role

I functioned as a UX Designer, and was involved in the entire end-to-end process.

The Challenge

Bring together knowledge and experience – currently siloed in various departments – to craft a shared idea of our target audience.

The Approach

We already had a fairly deep competitor analysis and content audit, as we’d just finished redesigning the entire site during a move over to WordPress. I started conducting stakeholder interviews with the various departments on campus, and collected and reviewed the most current national and international reports on college-bound high school seniors.


What surprised me was that the reports highlighted how much more prospective students were relying on their parents to help them pick their college.

More than three-quarters of students listed their parents as the greatest influence on their enrollment decision.
We quickly realized that we’d need to look at the parents of students as part of our target audience as well, something that stakeholder interviews with the Admissions department confirmed.


At this point, I started to summarize and condense all the information collected into eight personas, representing our international audiences, returning students, high school seniors and their parents. Our web analytics provided usage data, and qualitative data from Admissions and user interviews provided pain points and goals. I had an idea and reached out to Student Employment. They conduct Myers-Briggs tests to help find careers for our student population, and I knew that if they could give me general percentages of different personality types (no identifying info) of our incoming freshmen, it could give us some insight into what personality types we’re attracting.


The personas were created, and at this point our team provided them to each department for fine-tuning and edits. The response was universally positive, and we knew we’d have no problem sharing them throughout the University as a tool to keep everyone on the same page when talking about prospective students and their needs.

Current Use

Right now, our team has started sketching out a mobile app that helps teenagers figure out what they want to major in. This is a big question for high school students, and the personas will be a large part of figuring out the best user experience for the app.

After all, we’re not 16 anymore.