Personas Are Garbage (And So Are Many Other Things, Come to Think of It)

Photo by TatianaMara via Twenty20.

I’m not a huge fan of product development processes or frameworks — even though (or maybe because) it’s literally my job to apply these systems. In moderation, both are necessary and fantastic. Processes help you de-risk your product and development cycles by taking you through a safety checklist of minor-to-catastrophic implications: Are we using data to back up this hypothesis? Are we changing our public API? Will this take down the service?

Frameworks are similarly useful when they help you get over the intimidation of a blank page — the hardest part of any project. Templates for product specs (like this one from Asana) and tools like Jobs to Be Done are both great examples of useful ways to structure your thinking and move forward.

But processes and frameworks fail when they stop you from using common sense and listening to your customers. Processes and frameworks lend a false sense of safety in the dangerous waters of the real world by giving you a list of “the right things” that “should” lead to a successful product. Really, this is when we succumb to the Just World Fallacy applied to product development:

“In psychology, the just world hypothesis also goes under the name of “system justification theory.”[4] Just world or system justification can be seen at work when people blame rape victims because their hemlines did not meet specification or define individuals who are poor as just lazy slobs, otherwise they would have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps already. Just world thinking is correlated with religiosity, conservative political orientation, and admiration for political leaders, but also altruism in some cases.[5]
Some accounts associate two motivators underlying the “just world hypothesis.” The first is the desire to believe that all the good things one has are attributable primarily or solely to one’s self, hard work, and superior character and morality. The second is a refusal to accept that bad things can happen to one’s self and one’s loved ones due to circumstances beyond control.”

Life is messy. Much of a product or company’s success is about market timing, brand fit, and relationships with investors, advisors, and lighthouse customers — a melange of luck and privilege. A reliance on process serves to shield us from these truths.

In reality, not all of your product’s success or failure is due to your choices as a team. But you can take more of your destiny into your hands by focusing on your real customers: their reactions, their feelings, and their needs.

This is why I think personas are garbage. I can’t think of a more common offender than personas in creating a shield between companies and their customers. Personas are facsimiles of your real customers — ones that fit in tidy, psychographic boxes. Each step that you take away from the harsh, messy reality of your customer is dangerous.

Personas can be a great place to start when you don’t have any customers yet, especially when they are based on real people who have the real problem your product is solving. Personas can be a great place to end, to “check your work” and help you write your go-to-market plan.

(I’ve never seen personas used in this way, but I think a third use of personas could be in creating an anti-persona: What are the qualities, beliefs, and demographics of someone who will never use your product? Temper your enthusiasm that “everyone” will use your product by soberly outlining the people who will never use it.)

Most of product development is the middle part: the messy, weird, unintuitive place where you and your team are making hundreds of small decisions. If you are not looking to real people by continuously conducting user research and running hypothesis-driven tests, you’ll slowly (and with growing confidence) get far away from your actual goal: Making a product for real people.

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