Trouble with personas –

For years I’ve been troubled about the use of personas. On the one hand I am a strong believer in good user research, which aims to provide insights and the ‘aha’ moments for the design team. On the other hand I see personas as a rather flat way to depicting the richness of research results.

Personas strive to depict user goals

Just to explain — I am an opponent of creating personas based on team’s imagination. Such a proto-persona becomes, in fact, a representation of the stereotypes and impressions (often quite limited) of the group that made it. Have you ever noticed how made-up personas are often a amalgamation of the goals and qualities of the workshop participants? It is because we tend to see the world through our own glasses, so we imagine others maybe not exactly like ourselves but at least similar.

So, what I am writing here about is a persona created based on research results not formed by imagination. I hope Alan Cooper would agree with me on that, as he himself wrote in the first publication about personas “The inmates are running the asylum”:

“Personas are not the real people but they represent them throughout the design process. They are hypothetical archetypes of actual users. Although they are imaginary they are defined with significant rigor and precision. Actually, we don’t so much ‘make up’ our personas as discover them as a byproduct of the investigation process.”

Nonetheless, although I saw a practice of building good personas out of good research, I was still troubled by it. Cooper further writes:

“Personas are defined by their goals […]. The essence of good interaction design is to devise interactions that let the users achieve their practical goals without violating their personal goals. […] A goal is an end condition, whereas a task is an intermediate process to achieve the goal.”

This is a very good definition of what personas are for. To define the personal and the practical goals and design solutions in such a way to avoid conflicts between these two types of goals. As such they for sure help the design teams to understand the reasoning behind the design decisions.

So far, so good.

Personas are a seriously good educational tool

They help the newbies to the design field get from being overwhelmed by the richness of the data collected during the research phase to something manageable.

They offer to business an explanation what empathy is for in the design process.

They are a sign that the investigation is over and it is time for the design work.

They serve to show what to focus on and how to prioritize.

They give the new designers argumentation to fall on during the business discussions.

Not too bad.

Personas should support communication throughout the design process

Another goal of personas according to Cooper is to provide a basis for communication with people in the organization outside the design team: managers, product owners, developers, etc. That’s where the trouble begins.

For years I’ve seen organizations putting a lot of effort in designing personas only to find out that they didn’t quite serve the intended purpose. Some organizations went as far as to produce cardboard representations of their persona and take them to meetings. Other organizations would always keep an empty chair that represented the seat for the customer. The results… Well, I would say, they could be better.

Personas flop when it comes to business decisions

Somehow when it comes to the final decisions the business or technological goals seem to overpower either the personal or professional goals of the persona. No matter how well the user was represented throughout the design process, the business pragmatism tends to win over the user-centric idea.

I would like to make a big disclaimer here: I am not talking about all organizations in this world. Many of them are customer-centric and take decisions that beautifully balance the needs of the users, business feasibility and technological possibilities. Yet, I have a feeling that more organizations that not somehow tend to lose the sight of their end-client when the business-creation process enters its final stages.

This happens regardless of the fact whether a persona was created well or poorly, if it took a physical or virtual form and if it was used actively throughout across the entire organization or just within the design team. Why is it so? Why this tool, so widely propagated all around by the Design Thinking methodology somehow fails short on its most crucial function?

Personas and emotional attachment (or lack thereof)

I believe that it stems from the fact that personas do not create much of emotional attachment. As they are so goal oriented they appear rather dry and one-dimensional. They don’t have character flows, go through struggles and make tough choices. We don’t see them change as the product evolves.

They get created at the beginning of the design process and remain exactly the same throughout it no matter what happens. So, as much as they may be able to steer some reactions at first, over time they become translucent. As much as we display banner blindness when looking at the websites, we also are prone to persona blindness in the development process.

An alternative?

Now I feel I should provide an alternative to persona but I don’t have any. I just wonder how we could keep the emotional attachment to our user archetypes alive for longer than just a few days. Maybe it is making them characters rather than personas. Maybe it is storyframing. Or perhaps there is need for a new approach in engaging users in your design process.

Author: Aga Szóstek

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