I’ve always thought that, ‘The personas’ (fictional characters created to represent users) sounds like it could be the name of a 1960’s rock ’n’ roll band name. A bit like The Beatles, The Stones and The Crickets. And like many a band, ‘The personas’ certainly had their time in the limelight. They were once a headline act — the talk of the town. Churning out hit record, after hit record. Initially all the cool kids were using personas. They were creating personas left right and centre, proudly showing of their persona collection to all their friends and saying how great they were to anyone who would listen.

But those heady early glory days for ‘The personas’ are now in the past. Like so many bands they’ve gone out of fashion. Not because of musical differences, or running feuds in the band, but simply because they no longer seem relevant to most of their once devoted fans. Too costly some say, too unscientific. Too often misused and misunderstood. Unloved and unappreciated they now barely scrape enough of an audience together to even make it worthwhile touring. Personas are now sitting in the bargain basement section of the music store desperately waiting to be re-discovered. I’m here to tell you that there’s life in ‘The personas’ yet. Sure they’re not a mystical UX silver bullet. They won’t turn around an ailing project, or solve global warming, but personas are a still a very useful design tool. I’m going to tell you why personas are just as relevant today as when they first showed up on the scene. Before I do that, let’s look at why they fell out of fashion in the first place.

I’m not saying that personas were ever as big as The Beatles, but they were big man

The problem with personas

I think that one of the main reasons that personas have fallen out of fashion is because the UX community simply expected too much of them. Great we all thought. We’ll create personas to represent our users and everyone will automatically be thinking of the users first. Unsurprisingly this didn’t happen. A lot of time and effort was spent by teams creating lots of gloriously detailed, well researched and glossy personas (something I’m guilty of as much as the next UX designer), only for those personas to rarely if ever get used. Worse, if they were used they were often misused and misunderstood. Stakeholders would spend more time debating whether Sandra really would own a red Toyota Corolla, than actually thinking about what their users really needed. Teams would tie themselves up in knots trying to design for the million and one personas that they’d created. Marketing department would demand that personas reflect the demographics of key markets and researchers would complain that all their user research findings were being lost in the personafication process.

We all expected too much because at the end of the day personas are really just characters, nothing more, nothing less. Bob the manager; Sarah the admin user; Peter the research scientist — all just characters waiting for stories to bring them to life. Characters without a story are like cars without any fuel and road to drive on. Interesting to look at, but ultimately pretty useless. Bring stories and characters together and that’s when the magic happens. The good news is that stories are everywhere when it comes to designing products and services…

Personas and design stories

As I’ve said before (see You’re not a great designer unless you’re also a great storyteller) being a great designer is not just about crafting great designs, it’s also about being a great story teller. Design stories in the form of scenarios, or experience maps, or user story maps, or storyboards or scenario maps (the list goes on) are a vital ingredient to user-centred design. Design stories of how, where, when and why people use a product. Stories of how a product might be used, of how it might make someone’s life that bit better. Stories of pain. Stories of triumph. Stories of anguish. Just as fuel is a vital ingredient to cars, personas are a vital ingredient to design stories.

Steven King is one of the great storytellers of our time. Whilst you might not be a fan of his particular horror genre of choice, you certainly can’t argue with a man who has sold 350 million books, not to mention provided the story behind numerous movie greats, such as Carrie, The Running Man and the Shawshank Redemption. Steven King knows a thing or two about stories and in his highly insightful book, ‘On Writing’ (a great read by the way if you’re interest in how a great writer of fiction plies his trade) he outlines that he thinks the best stories tend to be character-driven. First and foremost, great stories are about people, not events. Great stories are about people in the form of characters, and in my opinion great design stories are about people in the form of personas.

Every great story like The Shawshank Redemption needs great characters

I like personas I really do. I’ve found them invaluable over the years and I think that it would be a crying shame if such a useful design tool were to be prematurely thrown to the scrap heap. Sure we all expected too much of personas, but they still very much have a place in a UX designer’s tool box.

I therefore implore you to dig out your old ‘The personas’ records. Turn the volume dial to level 11 and rediscover what made personas such a great act in the first place! Also stay tuned for some follow up articles looking at how to put just the right amount of effort into creating ‘good enough’ personas and 5 ways to use personas in your projects.

See also

Photo credits

The Beatles in America by United Press International
The Shawshank Redemption (Blueray disc) by Paul Townsend

Originally published at www.uxforthemasses.com on August 16, 2016.