User Personas Are Bullshit, Maybe.

Dec 18, 2019 · 6 min read

An Agency Owner and Designer walk into a bar. If no one created a typecast of them in order to market to them, are they even in the right bar?

Brllnt Partner, Julie, and UI/UX Designer, Cam, recently sat down to discuss user personas and whether casting archetypes of individuals brands want to reach are necessary for campaign development.

They also reflect on where valuable customer insights may come from and the surprising purpose user personas might actually serve.

Eavesdrop on their conversation here:

Julie: Top level — why are user personas important?

Cam: They’re not.

J: We’re going to start there.

From a basic level, they’re important when you are building campaigns and need to speak to different people within those campaigns. Example: this campaign is for men in this general age range who hold C-suite positions. The overkill, I think, is “Here’s a stock picture and insights on their personality.”

C: [pulls up google search of ‘user persona’] Yeah, like “Clark Andrews is a little bit of an extrovert. He has a lot of sensing, but not in intuition. He’s a feeler not a…” Like, why is that even —

J: There’s some level of bullshit there.

C: They even made up a quote for him.

J: Let’s hear it.

C: “I feel like there’s a smarter way for me to transition into a healthier lifestyle.”

[Julie and Cam laugh.]

J: So in the case of [our client], we did do a generational analysis. Boomers are going to behave differently from GenX-ers, and GenX-ers are going to behave differently than Millennials, etc. etc. If you break that down into genders, then there’s more behavior differentiators.

C: I think there are generational differences, but not to the extent that people talk about. Boomers are at a different [life] stage anyways, so you wouldn’t market the same to an older person regardless of when they grew up.

J: What’s great about that perspective is that it relates to a core business strategy. Who are you building your thing for? Because you’re not going to market your product that’s for Millennials to a Boomer; they need totally different things.

C: Right.

J: That is when those insights are more useful: when you’re building the solution vs. marketing the solution. The marketing of the solution should almost speak for itself.

C: That’s my whole philosophy: people are people. We’re all basically the same. We have the same needs, the same wants. But people get caught up and go “OK, so, ‘GenX experienced the Challenger exploding so therefore, this [experience] has colored the way they purchase Pepsi.”

[Julie laughs.]

C: People want to get in and analyze that stuff, and it’s way too far. Every generation has that kind of thing, and it doesn’t say anything.

J: Ryland and I recently went to a Getaway cabin in the Shenandoah Valley. We are literally hiking in the woods with our dog Zadee — and I say out loud, “Oh my God, we are the user persona for Getaway.” Ryland and I are both entrepreneurs. We’re in our late 30s, we both have tattoos, Ryland has a beard, he’s a white Caucasian male married to an Asian female, and we have a 40 pound dog. We drive a Subaru Crosstrek!” We are so fucking generic.

C: [laughing] You’re like a marketer’s wet dream.

J: I’m pretty sure in their PowerPoint presentation under ‘user persona,’ they have a likeness of Ryland and a likeness of me with a quote that says, “I just really need to disconnect.”

[Julie and Cam laugh.]

J: I didn’t do user personas before, Cam, because of that exact reason. Because people are people, and you’re always just talking to people. We all have the same stresses. We don’t have enough money. We don’t want to go to work. We need a vacation.

C: We want clean water, our kids to grow up to be successful, and a roof over our heads.

J: We question our relationships — no matter how solid they are. We question our identity. So, what I love about this user persona experience discussion is that it leads me to my other belief: focus groups are stupid. It is literally putting people in an unnatural environment, asking them to use or give an opinion on something they wouldn’t think about otherwise.

C: You’re really asking them to find something wrong with it, which is what anyone going into that situation would do. With so many different personalities, you will have those that ask, “How can I tear this down?” or “How can I be as positive as possible?” That’s not a true reaction to what it actually is or meant to be.

J: People don’t buy a product because they hate the font.

C: Right.

J: At my previous agency, we’d use ketchup as a response to a client’s ask for a focus group. When you buy ketchup in a grocery store, are you thinking about the bottle? No, you’re thinking about price. You’re thinking about brand or whether or not you like this ketchup. You’re looking at the ingredients. You’re asking “is this for me?” You’re not thinking about anything else, so the only way to truly gain insight is to do a native study. It’s to sit in a grocery store and, like a zoologist, just take notes.

[Julie makes note writing signal.]

“Customer number 234 has picked up Heinz bottle. Has read ingredients. Has placed item back on the shelf assuming high fructose corn syrup.”

[Julie and Cam laugh.]

C: Focus groups are probably cheaper to do than to actually do the work. Like you said, Julie, to actually sit and watch human behavior. Which goes into: if you want to do it right, you have to put in the time and money.

J: Focus groups are used to justify already-held perspectives. So if someone personally hates whatever is being presented, they just want to be justified in their personal opinion.

C: And then they can ask questions in a way that will justify their opinion, where it just becomes more subjective than it does objective.

J: Then, we’re making decisions on creative, campaigns, or design from a personal bias versus actually from the shoes of a customer.

C: Great segue back into user personas, which is what they are supposed to do. It’s meant to put a face to a made-up person where you can empathize with them. But, to me, we should be able to do that without having to look at someone’s face because that’s what we’re supposed to do: sympathize with the user, in general.

J: When I was at my other agency, we didn’t use user personas for the same reason you and I don’t like it, because they felt generic and, like, bullshit. But then, I took an in-house position and started hiring agencies, and they were presenting me with user personas and, on some level, I developed empathy. It was like “OK, we’re building something for these people” versus just looking at a bulleted list of characteristics.

Are user personas really developed to create a space for empathy? Like: picture yourself as this dude, who’s trying to become more athletic and needs Nike gear to do it.

C: So, is this more for the client — just to show the client?

J: I think it is more for the client. So they don’t make decisions based on their own wants and desires. Because it’s not for you over here, it’s for them over there.

C: [laughing] Did we just do a 180 on this?

J: We just talked ourselves into user personas. If we hadn’t even talked about decision makers inserting their own personal biases, we would not have gotten here.

[Cam and Julie laugh.]

J: That’s what worked really well with [Client]. While we didn’t quite do a user persona, we did do an audience overview. When we presented the generational differences, they were able to recognize, “Ah! We will be making decisions from this perspective.” They acknowledged right away that they’ll be making the decisions as GenX-ers. By providing context for the audience and the decision maker, it set them up for success.

C: It’s about how we can tell the story that we’re trying to tell to the client and bring them along for the ride. That’s the hardest thing in general. We’re not buying into [user personas], but it’s helping them understand what we are seeing, to see the vision [from the point of view of the audience].

J: Because whenever you’re presenting creative or user experiences, it helps them take a step back and go, “OK, I’m not using this product, but I’m building it.”

C: For someone else.

J: Which brings us back to business strategy. If their business strategy aligns with what their audience needs, then the marketing gap should be relatively small. Our work as an agency is just to bring it to life.

C: Right.

Be Brllnt

Marketing is Design is Everything


Written by


A design and marketing studio.

Be Brllnt

Be Brllnt

Marketing is Design is Everything

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