The Problem with (and solution for) User Personas
Falling in and out of love with a core UX practice
When Alan Cooper first described user personas in his 1999 book, ‘The Inmates are Running the Asylum’, he never imagined the design community would latch onto them so eagerly. Today, personas are arguably the most widely accepted and widely adopted tool in the UX Design toolbox, they are incredibly powerful and successful but it’s this success that has prompted me to write this post.
First of all let me add a quick caveat, as I do actually quite like user personas. The fact that they are widely accepted outside of the UX studio means you don’t get the funny looks from stakeholders when you produce them in the same way you do when you show them a user journey map for the first time (I think it’s the smiley faces that does it). It’s this mass adoption, however, that is causing the problem.
The original aim of user personas was to stop development teams arguing about what features they thought were most important and instead give them a target user to think about so they could appreciate who the features were being developed for. This was a great first step as it took the design decisions out of the hands of the engineers and put it firmly in the hands of the UX designers, possibly for the first time. Where things started to go wrong was when these user personas became customer personas and fell into the hands of the sales and marketing teams, and we all know better than to trust a salesman!
Ok, ok, I exaggerate, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with the sales team having access to personas. They need to know who they are selling to, and marketers need to know who to target; this isn’t actually their fault.
The issue here is that the User Personas created during the planning phase, in my opinion, should never leave the studio.
These first personas are often created on assumptions rather than hard evidence. Worse still, we seem to have developed a habit of packing out these personas with completely unnecessary, fictional content designed to make the persona feel more human.
Do we really need to know what car Joe Bloggs drives? Does it actually help knowing what his Starbucks order is?
Unless we are 100% sure that these “facts” are true, and most importantly, that this information actually contributes to the end goal, we’re just just wasting ours and our teams time including pointless and potentially misleading personas.
I believe the problem lies with our addiction as UX designers to storytelling. We love giving our personas a backstory. It makes them feel more real. But we must remember that any backstory we create, if not properly researched, will be filled with bias and stereotypes based on our own experiences and prejudices This makes the persona a dark reflection of the writer rather than a potential user.
Worse still, if we’ve stuffed a user persona with made up information, we leave ourselves wide open to criticism from a sceptical client. If we made that up, what else did we make up? It’s a fair criticism.
The good news is that the solution is simple, but it’s going to take practise, discipline and the collective effort of the UX community to make it stick. I’ve managed to boil down the process into three steps.
Step One- Create your provisional personas
Create your user personas as normal at the start of the project but call these “Provisional Personas”. Make sure the information they’re based on is real or, at the very least, contains as little fictional data as possible. That means no backstory, no picture, no fluff, only the core information required by the developers to know their end user.
Step Two- Kill your provisional personas
Don’t get too attached: accept that the provisional personas are temporary and subject to change. Change is good. Change means you’ve learned more about your user and you’re adapting to their needs. If you included any fiction in the provisional persona, prioritise replacing it with cold, hard facts.
Step Three- Set your personas free
But not until they’re ready! Only let personas out of the studio when they are complete. By all means, keep your stakeholders in the loop but don’t feel pressured to release the personas before they’re ready. You want to add value, not lead them in the wrong direction and a half- baked persona could do just that.
Yes, we’re breaking some long-standing conventions but personas are one of the greatest tools we have in our arsenal and we can’t continue to allow them to be misused, or in some cases, used against us. Let’s make Alan Cooper proud by giving our personas the respect they deserve and turning them once again into the force for good I know they can be.