Personas: A case study

I developed and introduced a set of personas at New York Cares, an organization devoted to volunteerism.  The personas helped shape designs for a diverse population of users.


New York Cares trains and distributes volunteers across New York City. It designs, hosts, and then tracks outcomes of thousands of volunteer-run programs. These programs happen in multiple cause spaces, including hunger, college access, and seniors.

New York Cares’ website acts as a marketplace in which volunteers match themselves with opportunities created by the organization.


The organization has a trove of data on its programs and its volunteers. This tells it how its volunteers behave, but not why.

The organization needed a better understanding of large-scale user patterns. An educated hypothesis, the personas could hopefully save development time across departments and allow teams to avoid returning to foundational research with each new initiative.

What I did

• Ran qualitative research: recruited participants, conducted and tracked research

• Combined qualitative and quantitative data to create segmentation and then refine it into personas.

• Introduced personas across the organization then supported their adoption.

The process

The work of the user-centered design experts Alan Cooper and Indi Young provided solid guidance. Both prioritize qualitative research from the outset, blending it with data as the persona segments evolve. Both also sharply avoid relying on demographic clusters that are often oversimplified and introduce bias.


I threaded persona research through a variety of other design/development cycles, consistently including persona-specific questions across different research initiatives. The organization evokes lots of good will, which consistently makes for smooth recruiting of research participants.


This allowed me to build up a body of research to draw from. The original segments evolved as the research progressed.


In an earlier research project, I explored the different goals our users had for volunteering. This project focused on matching volunteer mental models with the language describing volunteer opportunities on the website. The research on volunteer motivations provided a solid base for developing personas.


The next step was to overlay behavioral patterns on top of this framework of motivations. Indi Young recommends “Pay attention to the main ways in which people behave differently when engaged in what your product will solve”.

Time: A shared denominator

In the New York Cares’ ecosystem, time is everything. The organization promotes a veritable smörgåsbord of volunteer experiences at almost any time of the day or week,  and at locations across all five boroughs.

Volunteers have wide agency, and their choices reflect a great deal about them. Some volunteer frequently, while others  volunteer intermittently, or only once. Some volunteer on a wide variety of project types, while others graze lightly at just a few types, and still others volunteer repetitively at the same place, doing the same activities.


I used a series of spreadsheets to track individual patterns of time-spending behaviors. I looked at:

• Overall volume: how many projects had a volunteer completed?

•  Cadence: Did they volunteer weekly, monthly, annually, episodically?

• Day of the week

• Time of day

• Speed of engagement: how long was the path from volunteer training and approval until engagement in volunteer projects?

• Types of projects (although I weighted this less, because often volunteers discover a project by chance while browsing, then stick with it out of habit).

•Location of projects


Patterns emerge

The combination of quantitative and qualitative data revealed clear patterns. As I worked, I developed nicknames for the patterns. Most of these nicknames represent traits that were eventually rolled into bigger patterns. For instance, the following were rolled into “This is the New Me”.

“I’ll go Anywhere, Anytime!”

“This is my New Job”

“Uber Time-Aware”


Personas as boundary objects

During the sorting and affinity process a cohort of 6 personas naturally suggested itself. In the end, each persona is differentiated enough from the others to make a useful comparison across multiple traits. At the same time, the entire cohort is both generalized and plastic enough to be useful in most use cases.

Uptake and adoption

The tech group has used two contrasting personas to develop tasks in a card sort. We are using the results of the sort to refine information architecture on our website. As well, I used these contrasting personas to prioritize screen real estate for a user dashboard in a new product.

Evangelizing and advocacy

At this point most of the organization has been exposed to the personas through presentations and a staff-wide newsletter. A few departments are using them. The development team, for instance, has used them as a platform to refine email outreach segments.


Evolving personas

These personas are a snapshot of where the organization is at a point in time. The organization has had a stable volunteer base for a long time. It is pushing into a different model of volunteer engagement which focuses on five geographic areas of the city. These changes may influence the current range of personas.