Pen Portraits

Used by: Whole product team

Used for: Instant insight into audience human values and priorities

Helpful if: You need a definition and to understand more about your audience

Used at: The start of a project, but can be used iteratively as a check in

Step One:

Gather resources, information, and/or data about your audience’s human values.

Quantitative research can inform which human values are the most important to a specific group, whilst qualitative research will help you to go that one step further to understand why certain human values are the most important. You want to understand why.

Step Two: 

Think carefully about diversity of your audience, because people fulfil their human values in personal ways.

Consider people who are likely to want different outcomes from your design. For example, some people pursue pleasure by surrounding themselves with like-minded people; whilst others might like to read in silent bliss. Be mindful that there will always be an element of diversity.

Step Three:

Get specific about your particular target audience. If there are lots of different people, narrow down to 3 or 4 types who represent your current and/or target audience the most. It is impossible to serve everybody, and so be clear on how you are helping the specific people you are designing for. 

Step Four:

This is where you create a pen portrait for each person (audience). Create a description of a plausible person who represents each of your audience types. Make these as distinct as possible, or consider combining them again. 

Give each a name, a portrait image, 3 value priorities and a short backstory.

Step Five:

For each person, consider their life stage, why certain human values are priorities at this time in their life, what their goals and needs are right now, and what they might be in the future.

Step Six:

When you have one portrait per audience member (3 or 4), stress test them by setting a design challenge and compare to see if they inspire distinctive results.


If possible, recruit real-life participants with lived experiences similar to those in your backstories. Ask your participants to complete a design challenge and compare with those from you/your team.

Are you hitting the mark for them?

Pen portraits should never be seen as finalised ‘posters’. The more you learn about your audience, the richer and more reliable the pen portraits become.