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Credit: Erica Peterson

The Problem with Personas

Christin Roman
Feb 27, 2019 · 11 min read

The latest debate in the UX Research community has us questioning whether including demographic data in our personas is harmful. (We think it’s just lazy.)

A few years ago, I worked with a client on a website redesign project. There wasn’t much room in the budget for research, but they’d already created personas, they told me, so I could just use those. Great! I thought. They’ve already done some research and defined their audience. This is gonna be a breeze!

What’s wrong with Personas?

First I want to make it clear that I don’t think personas are fundamentally flawed, just that how they are created often is. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the classroom with beginning UX designers, and — as people are known to do when learning a new tool — beginners start first by imitating (in this case, filling in an existing template). It can be awhile before a practitioner stops just going through the motions and actually masters how to use the tool, when to use the tool, and, eventually, starts creating new tools to fit their needs. That’s called learning.

What are the common problems?

In a plea that we not throw out the baby with the bathwater, I’d like to offer up some ways that we can make personas better. These are the things I try to avoid when creating personas, and that I see from students or newer UX designers all the time.

  1. The persona places too much emphasis on unimportant details: I’ve seen groups of students spend 15 minutes aggregating the actual data that they collected to create a persona, then two hours debating over where this fake person likes to shop and eat. I remember the first time I ever saw a brand logo in a persona and my first thought was “that looks pretty.” My second thought was “I don’t care that this person drinks Coca-Cola.” (In fact, now that I know that they drink Coca-Cola, I’m going to make a bunch of judgements about them because I think soda is bad for you. Or because I drink Pepsi. Or whatever. And at the end of the day it just doesn’t matter.)
  2. The persona uses fake quotes: Quotations are often the strongest data we have coming out of user research. I’ve read quotes to clients that hit them like a gut punch. I’ve had people get visibly upset and argue with the person (not in the room with us, of course) who said it, because it was so incendiary or it went so against the assumptions that this client had about their users. There is nothing better than a choice quote that encapsulates what people are feeling and communicates it clearly. But too often, I see personas using obviously fabricated quotations to communicate what a personas should say, rather than what an actual person did say. It’s really easy to spot these because they’re generally of the “What I need is [exactly what you are selling to me]“ variety.
  3. The persona uses stock photos: I can spot a stock photo from a mile away, and the instant I see it, the persona has just lost all credibility for me. This is another one of those cases where a desire to make the deliverable look good can undermine the purpose of the tool. If I’m not willing to spend the time to find a photo of a real person then I just don’t bother including a photo at all.
  4. Its missing a scenario: Kim Goodwin nailed it, so I won’t bother to elaborate too much here. If a persona isn’t trying to accomplish some sort of task then I’m not really sure what a designer is going to be able to do to help them.
  5. The persona isn’t being built from actual data: I shouldn’t even have to say this one. But the truth is, as with a lot of UX deliverables, people tend to think that the purpose of the exercise is the deliverable itself, but it’s actually the work that goes into the deliverable that matters. The deliverable is just how you communicate what you’ve learned. If the research activities didn’t include talking to people, then I don’t think that using a person to represent the data is appropriate.

When does it make sense to use a persona?

I do believe there is a time and place for personas. As a deliverable, personas make sense when the research involved actually talking to people, although even then I won’t always create a persona. And again, as I stress with my students, it is not so much the deliverable itself that matters, but the thinking that goes into creating it. What I mean is, when used wisely, personas are a method for synthesizing what was learned from talking to users, taking what might alone only amount to anecdotes or observations and turning them into something much easier to hold onto and make sense of. Maybe even something a little closer to the whole truth of a person’s experience.

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This was one of three personas I created to represent the very different user roles we would address while developing an in-house productivity tool for a client. This was a case where I included age, gender and ethnicity in our personas because I knew exactly the people who we were designing for and wanted the personas to represent them. But it could still be argued that it wasn’t very important information to the task at hand. What did matter was how each persona worked, how they felt about their work, and the kinds of technology (including websites, social media, and games) that they used. All of the data contained in these personas came from a combination of user interviews and surveys.

What are some alternatives to Personas?

That said there are plenty of times when it doesn’t make sense to use a persona. So what are some other tools that can help us communicate our research, define our audiences, and inspire empathy among the people who will be designing and building products? Here are a few that I like to use:

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This empathy map was created during a kick-off meeting with a client as a way to get all of our assumptions out about who our primary user might be. We then went on to conduct interviews and surveys to gather actual data about their real thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
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One of four archetypes I created for a media client to help us summarize the expectations and behaviors of their primary users, without a whole lot of demographic or contextual detail.
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After conducting interviews for this client we identified a few key traits and showed how the people we’d talked to fell into different thought or behavior patterns along a spectrum. This helped us identify which of these points represented our target audience.
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Here’s an example of how these tools can actually work well together, as this matrix was used to help us identify what our archetypes would be, based on a range of characteristics that we felt were important to the project.

So What Now?

I suspect it will be a while longer before one of these (or some other, yet to be designed) deliverables will unseat personas as the catch-all research tool taught to upcoming UX designers. But whatever the tool, there will always be complaints about misuse and we will always struggle to teach newcomers and clients alike that it’s the research that’s important. How we communicate what we learn is always subject to refinement and improvement, and choosing or creating the right tool to do that comes with time, experience, and exploration.

Type/Code

Type/Code is an interaction design studio in Brooklyn NY.

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