Are Personas Overrated?

3ap — as agile as possible
6 min readJul 20, 2021


The customer/UX community has been arguing about the usefulness of personas for some time. While some consider the concept the holy grail, others describe it as outdated and useless.
With the arrival of the Segment-of-One approach, the group of persona opponents is growing.

Personas, or just another hype

Personas are fictional users of your product’s target group. Like real users, they have needs, abilities, and goals. Diverse information about their living environment makes them understandable as people and enables those involved in the project to identify with them.

Whoever has dealt with customer-centricity and the customer experience in the last few years has not gotten past personas. Do you want to become customer-centric? Then the first thing you need is (drum roll…): Personas!

But just having personas doesn’t make you customer-centric. A lot of companies put a lot of effort and money into developing personas just for the sake of having personas — without generating real value.

Persona-related methods have always been hyped. They are touted as a solution to all the problems. In reality, however, one notices that the goals are not always achieved. Due to these factors, personas are slowly going out of favor these days.

Don’t use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail!

So what went wrong with the concept of personas? Nothing. Used in the right context, personas can solve problems. The difficult part is knowing in which context the application of this methodology really generates value.

Methods are only a means to an end. No more and no less. It is important to find the right method for the problem to be solved. Nobody would use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail.

Not every method fits every problem

Choosing the right method is sometimes an art form. It requires empathy and critical questioning. And a broad spectrum of methods certainly doesn’t hurt. But the most important thing is to be clear about which question to address.

Where and how personas are successful

Despite all the criticism, personas have their benefits. But not necessarily in every situation. Knowing in which context personas are useful is only one part. It is their application that determines success or failure.

1. Use it in the right context
Personas are used in marketing, sales, product development, design, and various other disciplines. It is not always easy to determine the right context to use personas. There is no user manual for this: You need to train and use your instincts here. To help, we share some examples of where we used personas and how helpful they were.

Where Personas worked for us

  • Developing a digital product: At 3ap, we recently helped a client develop a digital fitness product at a very early stage of the idea. We identified different target groups based on their motivation to buy and use the product rather than their personal data. We looked at things like how motivated is the person? How much discipline does the person have? How price-conscious is the individual? This allowed us to look at the customer journey from different perspectives. We came up with different hypotheses, which were verified in user tests. In this example, the personas contributed enormously to the development of a customer-centric product vision.
  • Design principles: Personas have often helped us identify design principles. If you look at all the personas side by side, you can see what needs they all have in common and the minimum standard you need to provide. We usually derive design principles amazingly quickly this way. And with very little need for discussion.

Where Personas don’t add much value

  • UI design: Sometimes personas are used to create the basis for UI designs. So far, however, we have had rather bad experiences with this. This is due to two reasons: a) design mostly comes down to an individual’s taste and preferences and b) personas can even contradict each other. So how would you combine that in one design? That’s why we prefer to use persona-driven design principles as guidelines, and that has given us more success.
  • Sales and Customer Support: People with direct customer contact do not need personas in our opinion. Because these will never do justice to the real customer. They need a good sense of the customer’s needs and the scope to meet them accordingly.

2. Focus on personality values instead of socio-demographic data
How can knowing the fact that someone called Sara, 35 years old, living in Zurich with two children give me an indication of what influences purchasing decisions or her needs? The right design of personas is the key to success.

What is much more relevant is the customer’s value system and their personality. This gives us clues as to what drives satisfaction for them and how we need to address it. You can use existing personality models to differentiate your customers according to their traits, for example, OCEAN Big Five, DISG®, Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, and others. Consider along these dimensions how needs differ in relation to your product, and how best to meet them.

Differentiate personas according to personality traits, rather than demographic data

Differentiate personas according to personality traits, rather than demographic data.

3. Add experience drivers
Apart from that, we have had good experiences with identifying the so-called experience drivers. These are factors that can positively or negatively influence the experience with our product.

There are universal experience drivers such as digital affinity, price sensitivity, etc. But specific drivers such as the degree of discipline for a product in the health-wellness sector are also important.

Why is this relevant and what do personas have to do with it? If we have an idea of what impacts the experience with our product, we can create personas that differ on exactly these points. This in turn helps us to look at the journeys from the persona’s perspectives and to see how, and more importantly with what, we can positively influence their experience. This gives us important and valuable information on how we need to design the product, the customer journey, but also branding, marketing, etc.

Example of product-specific experience drivers

It is not a question of whether personas are useful, but when they are useful

To sum this up, the question is not whether personas are a good tool or not, but which is the right setting to use them. That’s why we recommend utilizing multiple tools and not stubbornly using the same tool over and over again. It’s better to evaluate which tool will help you achieve your goal most effectively.

What also helps is the exchange of ideas with others. Talking about use cases, in which a certain method really rocked their boat, and why. We are always open to having a discussion.
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