UX Personas: What’s the point?

Dan Nessler
Apr 9 · 7 min read
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Personas are under attack. They have been an established artefact in a UX designer’s toolkit. But recently, professionals have argued, that personas don’t create any real value in the design process and that they are bound to fail. So what now?

Most of us happen to design products for other people and not for ourselves. To understand the people we are designing for, we create personas. This used to be an established given in the UX & Design community. Nevertheless, lots of people have experienced failure and experts have raised criticism.

Personas get created but don’t get any stakeholder buy-ins, are not well communicated or not used at all. While the Nielsen Norman Group only points out these and other pitfalls when using personas others go further. Harshadewa highlights why purpose is built by using a more outcome-focused approach by applying JTDB-stories rather than using a persona. Ernan Roman on cmo.com claims innovation is not done by using personas and Alan Klement proposes to replace personas with characters overall.

So far so good but…


The misconception of personas

We often believe that we all have a pretty good and similar understanding of what we mean when we talk about personas. I have come to realise that this is not the case and that a lot of people have quite different opinions when it comes to the nitty-gritty bits.

People often confuse marketing with UX personas.

A core issue: People often confuse marketing with UX personas. In a nutshell, marketing personas are mainly based on quantitative research (e.g. via google analytics, facebook insights, surveys etc.). They often aim at clustering target groups based on sociodemographic criteria (e.g. age, gender) and general behaviours and actions (e.g. «likes this but also bought that») so they can be best reached with advertising. UX personas might take such knowledge into account but focus on the behavioural and emotional side by revealing (often via. qualitative research) struggles and joys, how people do what they do and what purpose they pursue (why) when acting in a certain way.

Here is also a more elaborated article on this by Justinmind.

Don’t confuse marketing with UX personas. They are not the same as these two people are not the same, although it looks like it just judging by their demographics and some likes and dislikes.

Our response

At Hinderling Volkart, we have developed an approach that we believe accounts for some of the criticism that personas have suffered from. Personas are not the holy grail. In the end and in our opinion, it is all about why you use personas in the first place, the way you set them up and how you use them in your process.

Now, let’s start at the beginning. What is a persona?


Definition of a persona

A persona is a heavily researched representation of a type of user. Personas should answer the question: «Who are we designing for?» They should help you to align strategy and goals to specific user groups. When we develop personas we try to focus on the WHYs and HOWs. We also try to implement User Stories or the «Jobs to be done» framework.


Goals & personas in the design process

Even if we agree on this basic definition above, personas might just be born but then left as artefacts and never actually used again. Therefore, we have identified a number of reasons why and where we want to use personas in our design process.


Creation of awareness

Personas serve as the backbone for the story we tell about our product.

Every story needs a hero. Every product needs a user. Personas help us to get to know these users, create awareness and a shared opinion among all stakeholders, about who our users are, their needs, life goals, characteristics, traits, gains and pains. We try to bring personas into the process whenever we talk about a product, its purpose, goals and who we are designing the product for. Personas serve as the backbone for the story we tell about our product.


Team and stakeholder commitment

Personas help us and our stakeholders to really think about why we are doing what we are doing.

Personas create commitment. Connecting our work to their needs allows us to justify the actions we take and the decisions we make. And thus makes people buy into what we are doing. Personas help us and our stakeholders to think about why we are doing what we are doing. In the best case, a personas’ «why» overlaps with the purpose of the company as well. This is always beneficial whenever meta-discussion about the purpose and goals of a product arise in the process.


Project focus and prioritisation

By using personas, we shift the conversation to actual user needs rather than internal stakeholder wish-lists…

Personas provide focus. They help us prioritise our work, features and functionalities. Furthermore, they provide the basis for job stories (or JTBD) and user stories. This is essential when creating a scope or prioritising a backlog and thus the steps we take in a product development process. Personas help us to justify what we do and when we do it. By using personas, we shift the conversation to actual user needs rather than internal stakeholder wish-lists and subjective preferences by individuals in a project team or company.


Our persona framework

To account for these goals we have set up the following framework that has served us well so far. We also use it as a basis to then later develop User Journey & Experience Maps and develop job and user stories on that basis.

Summary statement

A lot of people don’t have the time to go into every detail of a project, especially the further they are away from the core team of a project group. To tackle this, we use a persona summary statement. This statement only consists of the most fundamental aspects of a persona such as some descriptive parameters but more importantly a core statement summarising a situation and action of a user to achieve a specific goal . This is comparable to a meta job or user story. The summary page needs to provide a core message at a glance with minimum effort or explanation required.

Persona summary template

Sample Health Insurance Persona

Details

For people that are more involved, we provide a more detailed background story of our persona. We usually cover it on two (sometimes more) pages. Different sections showcase reduced listings of bullet points rather than extensive paragraphs. They cover the following topics:

  • Why — life goals
  • How — general values or behavioural traits
  • What — Job Stories (JTBD)
  • Specific characteristic towards product or business
  • Pains in relation to product or business
  • Gains in relation to product or business
  • Demographic data if essential for persona
Detail page — part 1

Detail page — part 2

Form/Format

We usually deliver such documents as pdfs or sometimes as open keynote files. Additionally, and depending on the nature of a project and usually at a later stage of the process, we deliver a «project lighthouse video» similar to a case study film. Such videos are usually used as internal communication tools to introduce and explain a project, a project vision statement and also highlight the user based on the persona in a story format.

This is a great way to create awareness, commitment and focus. Furthermore, such videos are easily sharable, they are self-explanatory and require less engagement than digging through tons of written documents.

End note

Although we use the framework described as basis, we challenge and deviate from it whenever needed and sometimes do not use personas at all depending on the needs and setup of a project.

Our approach of dealing with personas in the design process is also based on common story principles I have written about in another article.

Conclusion

Do you need personas? No, you don’t need them if you don’t have a clue what to do with them.

But every story needs a hero. Thus, and in most cases, there is a real human being you and your product would like to create value for. Personas help you bring this person on board of your project. If you use one it can provide context and a basis to build user journeys and experience maps, user and job stories and a product vision upon. Personas also help you to build a scope for your project and to get people to buy into it. Personas provide awareness, focus and commitment. If and how you materialise and use a persona depends on your individual needs within a project.


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Special thanks to everyone that supported me on this one, especially Kim Corti, Milo, Adrian Zumbrunnen and Daniel T Santos.

Hinderling Volkart

Hinderling Volkart creates outstanding web experiences, business portals, corporate platforms and digital products. In this publication, the folks at the agency share their thoughts and ideas about Design, Code, Tech, UX and anything related or perhaps unrelated to the industry.

Thanks to Kim Corti

Dan Nessler

Written by

Head Of UX Design @hvzh | Lecturer @hkb_MAComDes @fhhwz @zhdk | MA in #dxd @HyperIsland | formerly w/ @scholzfriendsCH @JvM_Limmat

Hinderling Volkart

Hinderling Volkart creates outstanding web experiences, business portals, corporate platforms and digital products. In this publication, the folks at the agency share their thoughts and ideas about Design, Code, Tech, UX and anything related or perhaps unrelated to the industry.

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