The value and the limitations of personas

Drawing personas

As one of the most widely used user-centric design tools, it’s important for every designer to know the ins-and-outs of persona development. By knowing the values and limitations of the personas you’re using, you can figure out how to get the best value and insights out of them to support your design process.

What are personas?

A persona is a representation of a user. It’s not a real individual, but can be a combination of research and insights gathered from a variety of users. It is intended to help designers and stakeholders better understand and empathize with their audience. By personifying a user profile (a set of traits, behaviours, and characteristics) a persona can serve as a reminder of whose goals and needs the design is striving to meet — who their product or service is working for.

How can personas be useful?

A solid persona can be invaluable to:

  • Align the team designing the product
  • Transferring knowledge of users to other teams and levels within the organization
  • Help us empathize and understand the challenges our users face
  • Give clarity to the goals of the users and what they will use the product/service for
  • Act as a tool for teams to role-play and explore ways their personas may interact
  • Help teams understand users that have different needs, goals, and behaviour from themselves

Different types of personas

Some personas that you will encounter:

Marketing personas are typically used by marketers, advertisers, and salespeople. They help narrow down the persona’s shopping preferences, technology habits, media consumption habits and purchasing motivations. These are used to better target products/services, messages, and touch points, but should not be used during the design process to create requirements or define user needs. They often lack the research insights to educate the design process in a way that other personas can.

Proto-personas are made up of assumptions about site or product’s users. Typically, these are created when there’s not enough time or budget to conduct the required user research to inform fully developed research-based personas. The best method for developing a usable proto-persona is to gather qualified assumptions from those on the team who know this user the best. Look to those who have direct contact with users or customers. Sometimes, customer care or call centre agents can provide the most useful insights.

While designing, however, it’s important to be keep the limitations of this persona in mind. It lacks the foundation of real research, and ideally should be used only as a guide or supporting tool.

Research-based personas are the most valuable to designers trying to understand user goals and needs. These will have been created through solid research such as user interviews, customer feedback, panels or focus groups, and usability testing. As new research is conducted and new insights are discovered, your fleshed-out personas are updated – they grow and learn to reflect these changes and shifts.

Avoid idealizing personas

Too often, people creating personas will “fill-in-the-blanks” or use assumptions that are idealized for easy pathways through the product they’re working on. It’s important to separate actual user behaviour from what you wish your users would do or think. (Save those ideas for when you’re exploring business or organizational goals.)

In fact, as a design tool, it can be most useful to think of your personas’ pain points with your product. Where do/will they stumble? How does the current product or service let them down? That’s where your design insights are most valuable.

An ever changing tool

As with so many things, it is important to recognize that the ‘end’ is just the beginning. Once you’ve created them, your personas will need to evolve and grow. Your personas will never be complete, and with every change in your product and every shift in technology – they need to adapt as well as your users.

For example: Apple recently removed the 3.5mm earphone jack with the introduction of the iPhone 7. For a persona that focuses on users that carry headphones and iPhones, they may carry lightning adapters or wireless headphones now instead.

But how can you know for sure? Continued user research can help support your persona updates and solidify your design practice.

Remember…

Personas are an important way to keep your users’ voice and interests top of mind in your design process, but they will never be a perfect simulacrum of your users. Personas, even those based on research, are useful fictions. Your users are real humans and are thus incredibly complex, with fluctuating needs, attitudes, goals, and behaviours. By understanding and accepting this gap between the two, you’re well on your way to using personas in an effective way.

UX designer Bryan Chang

This post was written by Bryan Chang, a UX designer and researcher at Usability Matters.