Customer Experience and Design

The too familiar persona

Too familiar persona
Design personas are user research models employed in various fields of design. Software design teams have been embracing personas in their work since roughly 1999, following Alan Cooper’s published work on goal-directed personas in his “Asylum” and “About Face” texts. They’ve become a user research staple, and the must-do-method for most of the products and services we design. We love personas and so do our clients; these handy models are visual and enticing, and useful at kick starting conversations between clients and design teams. And, unlike other forms of design research I find we encounter minimal to no resistance including them as a research deliverable. With all that is positive about personas my growing impression is that – dare I say – traditional personas are now a bit overfamiliar through overuse, and this familiarity has certainly clouded my perspective.
This familiarity is problematic.
Clients have trailed behind in understanding personas and how best to use them. At times the meaning and intent of design personas are lost in translation as other parts of organizations use them to represent such things as market segments. You may have encountered this at one time, “We’ve created personas. Let me check if marketing can send them over.” As a result development teams miss out on much needed behavioral insights. Along with this Dr. David Travis recently noted in his blog that by bringing personas to life we inadvertently turned them into parodies,” enlarged and printed on posters then cemented into a brand’s identity. Also, project constraints such as time and budget limit going beyond “good enough for now” to employ personas in a more meaningful way. Perhaps my experiences with personas are singular, but I must say I have had few opportunities to refresh a brand’s personas once the research phase was completed and signed off.Personas
From observation and experience, the noteworthy reason personas have become a bit hackneyed is because our familiarity with personas has fostered a tendency to employ them predictably. I am guilty of following “that template” grounded in Cooper’s widely used method rather than stepping back and considering alternate perspectives. Dr. Lene Nielsen is a specialist in personas and she identifies four strands.
Goal directed personas [focus on users’ work goals]
Alan Cooper created goal directed personas to sway developers away from designing for an “elastic user” (i.e., every person on a product team has an idea about users and their goals), or from making “self-referential” decisions in which they project their own goals, motivations and mental models onto a design. Nielsen notes that…
“The method focuses on a move from initial personas to final personas…based on in-depth ethnographic research. The initial personas grasp an intuitive understanding of user characteristics. Later on, these are condensed into final personas, one persona for each kind of user. (Floyd et al., 2008).”
Role-based personas [focus on users’ roles in the organization]
“The starting point of the role-based perspective was criticism of…Cooper’s approach to personas…critics introduced user archetypes, which can communicate the most important knowledge about the users and thereby support the design process.”

This perspective advanced the ideas that both qualitative and quantitative data must be included in the persona descriptions, they should include data from market research, usability tests; and, personas should describe users’ “computer proficiency, activities, and hopes and fears…” to flesh out users more broadly.
Engaging personas [focus on empathy]
Dr. Nielsen took the lead on this perspective, and a persona description of this type balances data and knowledge about real applications and fictitious information with the intent to evoke empathy and view users as anything other than stereotypical.
“The engaging perspective is rooted in the ability of stories to produce inNielsenvolvement and insight. Through an understanding of characters and stories, it is possible to create a vivid and realistic description of fictitious people. The purpose of the engaging perspective is to move from designers seeing the user as a stereotype with whom they are unable to identify and whose life they cannot envision, to designers actively involving themselves in the lives of the personas.”
Fiction-based personas [focus on generating discussion about users]
Proto-PersonaThe rise of Agile transformed personas. The emphasis on user experience (UX) and rapid development meant that traditional personas were “too finished, too final.” Agile teams needed a conversation starter (Floyd et al., 2008) and they needed ‘fresh’ personas updated with new knowledge about front and center users. Also, Agile helped spawn new variants such as proto-personas, adhoc personas and assumption personas (Adlin & Pruitt, 2006). Jeff Gothelf popularized proto-personas, a leaner user research method to circumvent investing months in user research by spending “a few hours to test our best guess as to who is using our product and why.” As Dr. Nielsen notes, “The personas in the fiction-based perspective are often used to explore design and generate discussion and insights in the field.”
Does this sound at all familiar?
Even with the emergence of lean UX I find that I am still following a traditional approach creating personas. I carefully define a handful of personas for a product, then use them for a period of time in product design/development only to set them aside in a SharePoint site or a cloud service. Rarely do I include “Sonjay, Ben, Trudy or Taylor” in our team’s long-term conversations. So how do we keep personas involved in the entire lifecycle of design and baked into the lifespan of a brand? Well…
In part two next week I’ll share perspectives and ideas.

About the Author

I'm a Senior Manager User Insights & Research out of the Atlanta office.

More from this Author

Thoughts on “The too familiar persona”

  1. I’ve seen more hack than hackneyed. OK, that might be a bit harsh, but perhaps familiarity is more an experience of the UX professional rather than the rest of the team (and the client). I certainly find myself explaining them a lot. “What are they for? Did you just make all this up?”
    Personas are not easy to do well. It’s something between fiction writing, research paper, and Rubik’s cube.
    Possible pitfalls: 1) Play it safe and end up with colorless personas that no one can remember, and that omit some of the less-than-ideal user behaviors that a design needs to solve for. 2) Make the profile very sparse, which has the same failures as #1. 3) Stop with assumption personas (referred to as fictional, in the post).
    Like software features in Agile, UX artifacts can and should be iterative. Starting with fictional personas is great. They have less credibility three sprints later, if they haven’t been validated with a more robust study.
    MailChimp UXers posted a great piece on how they found a way to incorporate user foibles into personas while still being respectful:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe to the Weekly Blog Digest:

Sign Up