There’s been a lot of articles and comments, here on Medium and in other places, about how horrible and terrible Personas are for software development. These articles are usually thoughtful and based on the real-life experience of their intelligent, successful authors. They all prove one thing very convincingly:

They don’t really know what they’re talking about.

What these people write about is completely missing the point of Alan Cooper’s simple and radical process of identifying a Primary Persona and its Goals… and then, after mis-applying the least important part of the process, they did not magically become better designers.

You should not critique something you didn’t read.

Alan Cooper’s books, The Inmates Are Running The Asylum, and About Face, explain quite clearly what the User-Centered Design process rests on. Personas are not the most important or central part of it. Here’s what Alan says, that matters:

Observe the users

Not “listen to” or “ask” or “survey” or, heavens forbid, “focus-group.” The verb is observe.

Design for one user only

Personas come in at this point, but the point is to identify the Primary Persona: The one that needs the system, and can’t make do with a UI designed for another persona.

Design for user goals, not tasks

That is the most important part of Cooper’s methodology: User Goals. You do the research to find out the truth about user goals. You write up a primary persona in order to contextualize and communicate these goals.

The point is that we need to design for the goals of the one user that matters most.

What are the three signs that you don’t understand Cooper’s process?

  1. You talk about “Personas” without having done ethnographic research. Personas you came up with, or that your client came up with, are not personas. They are just a mashup of a few people’s assumptions and prejudices. Calling guesses “personas” doesn’t make them so.
  2. You talk about “Personas” without mentioning goals. Personas and Goals without goals are like a combustion engine without the engine: Just a lot of hot air and ashes.
  3. You talk about “Personas” in the plural, without mentioning a primary persona. If you’re still designing your UX for multiple user types, calling them Personas won’t change the fact that they are, in effect, a design committee in absentia. Design by committee is bound to fail.

If you’ve read and applied Cooper’s methodology, as instructed, without shortcuts or reverting to assumptions, and it failed to deliver results, then I’d love to hear about it. My main question is this:

What client was smart and progressive enough to let you do the full, uncompromising UCD process? Can you thank them for me?

The reality is that Cooper’s process is radical. It flies in the face of common sense in multiple, important ways, and it’s rare that you can convince a client to go along with such a counter-intuitive set of instructions.

To do UCD, I have to start by telling my client they don’t understand their market. They’ve been at it for years, I just walked into their office, and I’m telling them they don’t know what matters.

Then I have to get them to pay for a few weeks of flying me around to sit in their customers’ offices or homes, asking questions and looking over their shoulders. And then I will purposefully ignore most of their user groups while designing the product, and only aim to please some of them.

Most managers can’t stomach that. Most can’t deal with the hit to the ego that new customer insights can mean. Most can’t figure out how to accept the “designing for one user” principle. If they make you compromise (and in most cases, you should be ready to compromise or lose that client), then don’t blame the methodology you did not really follow when problems crop up.

That’s another way you’ll know you didn’t do UCD right: If you didn’t have to fight some layer of management, you were just doing the same old.


So, fine, you can have your “Personas don’t work” mantra, but I’ll hold fast to mine:

“Designing just for the Primary Persona’s Goals is hard,
but it works like a badass mofo.” Tweet this

It’s served me and my clients well.


Did you enjoy this rant? Did you not? Please leave a comment, let’s have ourselves a good argument!

Radical UX

Because magical experiences are counter-intuitive.

Antoine Valot

Written by

I should have been born tomorrow.

Radical UX

Because magical experiences are counter-intuitive.

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