Why Personas Aren’t Just an Exercise in Make Believe
Personas are an excellent tool when they’re based on actual research
Ever since Alan Cooper’s 1999 book The Inmates Are Running The Asylum was published, everyone is mad for personas. They’ve permeated the highest and deepest levels of organizations, and have become a standard interaction design tool. Whole projects are now built around creating them, and there’s a feeling that once you get a half dozen or so, your design problems will be solved. Presumably, your personas solve them for you.
In case you haven’t been in the same design and business bubble that I’ve been living in ‘lo these many years, personas are a documented set of archetypal users who are involved with a product, typically the product’s users. Each persona has a name and a picture. They’re supposed to give designers a sense that they are designing for specific people, not just generic, ill-defined users.
Done well, this is exactly what personas do. The problem is, most teams build personas from the wrong kind of user information, or worse, base them on assumptions. It’s no surprise that a web search for personas brings up an amazing variety of persona sets, and most of them are terrible.
Fact or fiction
The main cause of this mess is that half of the personas out there are entirely made up with no user research to back them. In many cases, no one on the design team has talked directly to users to find out who they are, so designers come up with an idea of a user type. The resulting personas are like the designer’s imaginary friends.
Without any research to back assumptions, it’s easy to end up with a product built for what designers think the users are like, rather than what the users are really like. It’s the difference between reading about someone and actually meeting them, between fantasy and reality. The best personas are conceptual models that help you to digest the user research in a coherent way. They put a name and face to an observed pattern of behavior.
The only time it’s useful to do personas before research is as a check of the design team’s assumptions, which you can test and revise later. It can get them to stop thinking about a monolithic block…