Personas tell stories about users so that people in the organization can understand the user and what they want. Personas are 'archetypal' users that act as 'stand-ins' for real users and help guide decisions about site aims, functionality and design.
Personas enable development teams to focus on the issues of greatest importance to users, and deliver them in a way that is most suitable. As importantly, personas tell web teams and contributors what not to develop. They are a constant reminder as an A4 print out on the pin board by the desk, as a poster on the wall, as a cardboard cut out, in the corner of the office reminding developers about what's important to users. However, to ensure that the personas reflect 'real' users, they need to be based on a detailed understanding of users, their goals and their priorities: user research is required to gain real insight and understanding into user needs and motivations.
A good persona (or user archetype) is based on research and is specific, memorable and includes actionable information. By using a more realistic persona name, and describing the behavioral characteristics you want to emphasize, you make it easier for everyone in the group to imagine the same person.
In most cases, personas are synthesized from a series of ethnographic interviews with real people, then captured in 1-2 page descriptions that include behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and environment, with a few fictional personal details to bring the persona to life. For each product, or sometimes for each set of tools within a product, there is a small set of personas, one of whom is the primary focus for the design.
A good persona description is not a list of tasks or duties; it's a narrative that describes the flow of someone's day, as well as their skills, attitudes, environment, and goals. A persona answers critical questions that a job description or task list doesn't, such as: Which pieces of information are required at what points in the day? Do users focus on one thing at a time, carrying it through to completion, or are there a lot of interruptions? Why are they using this product in the first place?
The term "personas" is derived from the Latin dramatis personae, the cast of characters in a play. A set of characters is only interesting in the context of a plot, which is why we use scenarios. Personas should focus on current behavior, not speculation about future behavior with a product. Scenarios describe the personas' future behavior.