strategic ux · UCD tools · user experience

Personas are for hippies… and transformation and focus

Thanks to London IA, I had the opportunity to share some thoughts on Strategic UX that have been starting to take shape into a book recently.

I happened across this twitter exchange this morning. This is a not surprising response to personas, I’ve shared this response at times and have empathy for both points of view.

Twitter conversation between Tom Coates and Martin Bellam

Here’s the thing… You don’t really want to use personas, do you? They are really a pretty cumbersome way of maintaining your customer’s active presence in the design & product management process.

What you really want is a small, tight team who get who your users are, what they value about your product/service and what is behaviourally significant about them. And you want regular access to them (if you or your boss are representative of your target audience this helps enormously).

Enter reality – the majority of us are not working in this kind of environment. We are working for large organisations who are focussing more on themselves than their users, with people who may not have seen or heard from a customer for years (if ever), whose attention is constantly being focussed on internal KPIs focussed on quantity not quality. Who resist making and decisions in preference to making a sub- optimal decision that can be traced back to them.

Sure, the likelihood of incredible design flourishing in this environment is significantly reduced, but what do we do? Give up?

We can’t all do that, can we? And neither we should.

Many of us have experienced that moment when a team transforms – when they realise what it is like to be their customer and how easy it would be to make that experience better. This most often happens during usability testing. (around the 3rd or 4th participant when the team acknowledges that perhaps we haven’t recruited a bunch of stupid users and maybe we do need to change the design a little).

Well made and well used personas are less able to create this transformation (watching real users will always trump personas) but they can help maintain that transformation and act as a tool to evangelise a customer focus through out the organisation and to create a common language around our users and – possibly my favourite thing – to allow us to reduce usage of the term ‘user’ (so abstract, inhuman and elastic) and replace it with our personas names.

Yes, this does make you feel like a bit of a hippy. I agree. But it helps, a lot, to transform focus from internal processes and priorities to what people actually do, need, want.

You don’t *have* to use personas to do good design. If you make bad personas (made up not researched, focused on demographics not relevant behaviours and attitudes), and if you use then poorly (make them and forget about them, or keep them hidden within the UX team) then you might as well not use them.

But well made personas in day to day use through out the organisation are incredibly useful when you need to gain and maintain focus on the (potential) customer.

Here’s the test:

  • do you have personas for your project/product?
  • are they made of data from real (potential) customers?
  • do they have real names not segment names?
  • do you have fewer than five personas?
  • can you remember all the names of your personas and describe them?
  • do you use them to guide, evaluate and/or explain design decisions?
  • can your boss name your personas?
  • can the developers on your team name your personas?

If you’re not answering yes to the majority of these, there are probably good reasons why personas aren’t really working out for you.

Don’t fret if you didn’t do so well here – most people don’t (out of a room of dozens of UXers last night only one lonely hand remained in the air at the end of this line of questioning last night).

I reckon personas are the best known but most misunderstood and misused tool in the UX toolkit. Don’t throw your personas out necessarily but see how you can incrementally improve how they’re made and communicated.

And if your fortunate enough to work in a project team who doesn’t need personas, well, lucky you – just don’t be too successful or you may find yourself large enough that you’ll windup needing personas after all! ;)

(For help on making good personas, two excellent resources are Designing for the Digital Age or About Face 3)

5 thoughts on “Personas are for hippies… and transformation and focus

  1. I have one more question to add to your list.

    “Are your personas targeting the right business size, and does your company agree?”

    Here’s why… I can answer yes to all your questions. However, our work still falls short because our company waffles on whether the product is targeted at an enterprise level customers, or small-to-medium business (SMB). Often processes change across these businesses.

    For example, designers in SMB often where lots of hats, and therefor are often more technical; they may do wireframing, visual, and some coding, wheres in the enterprise, there’s often an information architect, a visual designer, a front end developer, etc. Additionally, a designer in SMB might makes choices about the platform, whereas in enterprise, a software architect and product owner would usually decide.

    One might argue that such a detail is merely an attribute of a persona, but so is persona name. In my experience, your bosses ability to name the target market is more valuable to the success of the persona than his name. Im not saying “name” is not important. Im just saying its equally, if not more important to be able to name the market.

    1. hi Jeff, so in my model of how you get to personas, you work out who your target audience is first and then, from that, you do your research and make your personas. And part of identifying your target audience is working out whether it is a large enough audience to make your venture commercially sound… so I agree that clear target audience definition and ensuring that it is a commercially viable audience is absolutely essential… not sure it’s a part of the persona process exactly, but definitely critical to the overall exercise of audience definition.

  2. Hi Leisa, I ran across your post while writing a rant about the use of personas, and how they can just be used as an excuse for not really focusing on usability.

    As a solution ‘architect’ and then product manager as few years back I loved the concept of personas. It/they gave a human face to an otherwise fairly routine requirement gathering and specification exercise. Though did it help the eventual software? Possibly more of a distraction from the reality.

    Where personas helped was justifying to the marketing dept. that I’d thought about what I was doing, and gave them some pretty outlines to market our software around. To the point that I feel a little nauseous every time I hear a marketing person use the the term “persona-based blah” (replace blah with the currently hot software category of your choice).

    As you say, personas are so horribly misunderstood and misued, that I feel we need to immerse our developers or UX people in their target audience for a while. Painful for everybody involved I’m sure. Or we need to accept that we don’t really have the resources to do real usability work in our software and save the cash for better training!

    Great post. Very thought provoking.

    PS – almost forgot to link my rant: Don’t use ‘personas’ to hide the fact that can’t do ‘usability’

  3. Nice piece Leisa!
    Like your test!
    Well-defined personas will stand up to scrutiny from all angles and might make that “perhaps we haven’t recruited a bunch of stupid users and maybe we do need to change the design a little”-moment a little less traumatic…

  4. I don’t really understand the premise here. So there are people you work with who think it is somehow too touchy-feely, hippy-dippy to give a crap about the end user? Seriously? Fire them.

    Love and Peace,
    An End User of Your Product.

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