Stop Obsessing Over User Personas

People use your product to get a job done — not because they belong to a persona group.

Jeremiah Lam
Jan 21 · 5 min read
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Illustration by Thierry Fousse from Icons8

There are tons of articles praising and advocating user personas and how it could help improve your product design. Yet, whenever I read one of those articles, I couldn’t help but think differently about them.

  • Is it that important?

At this point, it’s important to note that I’m only referring to user personas and not the entire user research process. I do not doubt that user research is a core component within the design process and shouldn’t be left out. So, if we already know about the users through research, why can’t we use that information to proceed with design decisions?

I know that some of you out there might be raging at this very thought, but hear me out. Personas were created to be a summary of the data that emerges from the research phase. They are just categories of the data, not characteristic of an existing user. But I have seen user personas that include personalities, interests, hobbies, and, honestly, I have no idea how those data would affect my design decisions.

The empathy card

The common myth is that by adopting a “real person” to embody the research, it will be easier to empathize with the “user” and, therefore, to design for. But I don’t see how stuffing research data into human puppets would allow me to better empathize with the user. I mean, even real people don’t always inspire or induce empathy most of the time, much less an imaginary one.

“User personas” done wrong

User personas typically categorize the user data into user types. For example, you might want to develop personas for users who might book a flight online. The typical user types may include; business travelers, couple honeymoons, family vacations, etc.

This leads to the wrong outcomes because people categorized based on user types can have different goals and objectives, regardless of their age, occupation, location, status, educational background, etc.

People don’t need your product because they belong to a stupid persona. They use your product to get a job done — a job you wouldn’t even know that your product would get used for.

Therefore, it’s time to stop obsessing over user personas and start finding out “what users are using your products for.” Because, regardless of personality, age, gender, status, or motivations, everybody has an objective or goal for using your product.

User personas as fictional characters

Many designers repeat this same mistake in the design process. I’m guilty of this as well. We imagine a persona — let’s say his name is Bob. We give him attributes, like a family, a high-paying job, a lovely house, and two cars. Heck, we will even throw in a dog for him. After this, we would have debates and meetings, discussing what Bob likes or dislikes.

The truth is, no one knows what Bob would like because Bob doesn’t exist at all. He’s just an imaginary character that we created. It may seem obvious now when I put it this way, but as we continue adding specific personality traits and details about his habit, it becomes harder to identify Bob as just an abstract representation of research insights.

What’s worst is that every bit of specific details we add to Bob only makes him more stereotyped and less representative of the general audience. These “Bobs” are then kept static across time, not flexible and adaptable, and in most cases, forgotten.

The solution?

We shouldn’t overly obsess over user personas but focus on the information that matters most. I have experienced teams spending 20 minutes aggregating the actual data they have collected, then spending hours debating where the user personas like to shop and eat. At first, I thought that it was all productive research work, but thinking back, I seriously don’t care if the persona drinks Coke or eats MacDonalds. All those assumptions and discussions don’t matter at all.

Stop with demographics

Demographic data are only meant to get people to relate to the persona and not influence the design in any way.

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Skip the charts & graphs

Let’s admit it; most charts and graphs on user personas are merely used for visual aesthetics. Most of them are used to visualize the “user’s” personality, hobbies, and other redundant information. It’s mostly useless information that distracts you from the crucial data — the user’s objective for using your product.

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Ignore the profile picture

99.9% of the time, the picture used in personas are likely to be stock photos with the sole aim of promoting empathy.

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Instead of wasting your time on the above, focus on the information that matters in the design decision;

  • Insight into user goals and priorities

There are also other alternative models out there, which allow you to communicate your research and define your audience better.

  • Empathy Map

But whatever the tool or model, it’s the research that’s important. How you communicate it is totally up to you and is always subjected to refinement and improvement, and figuring out which is the right tool to use.

Last thoughts

I know that this article might rub the UX community the wrong way. But rightly so. Your so-called user personas might be a bunch of assumptions based on pontifications — which might mislead future design decisions. To create an accurate representation of your users, you have to use personas as categories of the data, not characteristic of an existing user.

It should only contain actual research data and not random information made up during a discussion. It should also be focused on the user’s goals and pain points (task-oriented), not fake demographic information. Only by relying on research and facts will you be able to understand your users truly.

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Jeremiah Lam

Written by

Jeremiah Lam is a UI/UX designer, writer, and tech enthusiast living on the sunny island of Singapore

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Jeremiah Lam

Written by

Jeremiah Lam is a UI/UX designer, writer, and tech enthusiast living on the sunny island of Singapore

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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