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Taking a Hard Line on Personas

We came across an article in UX Magazine the other day that fired up some interesting discussion on the subject of personas. When we talk to clients, we generally define a persona this way (and it’s usually included on the first page preceding a persona deliverable): “A model of goals, attitudes, and behaviors distilled from observing real behavior. Typically a persona is presented as a narrative description of a single 'person' who represents a customer segment.” We also include this brief definition of why it’s useful: “Personas help to guide design decisions, focus development efforts on what users need, and build consensus on how experiential and feature requirements.” Pretty simple, right? 

Despite the simplicity, clients frequently want to skip the persona exercise. It’s not uncommon to hear skepticism like “Is this something we really need to do? I can’t justify spending weeks working on something that doesn’t result in ‘actual product work’”. Sometimes clients get it, and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes scared project managers and unoccupied development teams “just need the specs”, pronto. Even though clients may not want to perform (or can’t afford) a proper persona exercise that includes first person research, we can usually make the case for “ultra-light personas” that define a handful of users based on whatever clues we might have on hand. Sometimes this even means making educated guesses on who we think the users might be, and creating simple “one pager” profiles that can be printed in large formats and posted to the walls of the war room, the development bullpen, or the client’s office. Definitely not information gathered by "observing real behavior", so not true personas as we define them. 

Because we put these personas together in just a few days, usually with the help of as many people familiar with the goals and intended users as possible, they’re woefully lacking in depth, they’re not very insightful, and they most certainly won’t be the tinder for true innovation. However, the three or four posters end up performing an important function: they orient the thinking around people, rather than a product requirements document. Even though the persona descriptions may not be based on any first person research, just the fact that several users are described in detail, including fictional day-to-day activities, with actual names and ages and photos, helps to orient the team around users rather than features. Even if the emphasis is on getting features out the door, developers or QA specialists or project managers can discuss features or describe user journeys “by name”: “What would Tom think when presented with this screen?” “Bob might understand this, but don’t you think Susan could get stuck?” In a sense, we almost think of personas the same way we think about “prototypes”: while they both have a general definition, their fidelity and purpose can vary widely based on the project at hand. 

So it was with this “personas-can-be-lots-of-different-things” perspective that we read the UX magazine article about personas with some skepticism. Rather than thinking of a persona study as a flexible tool with a multitude of uses, the author, Kevin O’Connor, seems to draw a pretty hard line:  

“Personas are built by first conducting one-on-one interviews with a wide demographic of the targeted audience(s). Patterns in the data gathered from the interviews begin to emerge after approximately 30 interviews for a typical project focused on one brand or product. Analysis is then conducted on the research data over the course of one to two weeks…From here, it's essential to launch another round of research. This time, the recruiting is done according to the behavior and motivation criteria that represent each user type, rather than by the demographic criteria used in the first round. Recruiting five to seven respondents per persona is sufficient to see patterns of behavior…There is no shortcut to creating personas; they are an investment. Strategic, forward-thinking organizations can build personas as a subset of other research, but when conducted properly as a standalone project, the investment in persona development is somewhere between $80,000 to $120,000…Some advertising and design agencies offer inexpensive, shortcut methods of defining personas, but these marketing profiles lack the specificity and substance of true personas. An inability to plot the personas in relation to each other and heavy reliance on demographic data for the interpretation can be indicative of personas done on the cheap.”

While we don’t really disagree with his points as they relate to what a “full fledged persona” could be, it sounds as if he has an “all or nothing” perspective. Maybe the problem is just semantic, and what we refer to as “personas” when talking to clients, we should actually call “shorthand user composites”. Maybe referring to a wide class of possible deliverables as personas ends up short-changing the “true” persona research and deliverable exercise. But will we then need to start defining the full-blown, high-fidelity Axure-produced deliverable a “Prototype”, and the hand-sketched UIs shared with users “Low-Fidelity Discussion Drivers”? Probably not. I think we’re just going to keep referring to a range of deliverables as personas with clients, with a commensurate sliding value scale. 

In the comments section for the UX Magazine article, a reader going by the name Jesper Falck Legaard included an interesting point, which I think underscores this idea that there’s a “persona holy grail” out there, that, if not followed properly, can be “dangerous”. While we don’t subscribe to his perspective, it’s an interesting point to end on: 

“Personas can be useful as a marketing tool, but are 'dangerous' to use for experience-based designing. They give a somewhat false security, where designers may think they know and empathize with the users because they are looking at a persona they created. But that can be very misleading - so make sure the design process involves actual people throughout, and not just for creating a persona in the beginning.”

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