Personas: Dead yet?

When I joined Microsoft in 2000, personas were hot. They were everywhere and Alan Cooper’s The Inmates are Running the Asylum was the most talked about UX design book. The persona posters were on all the walls. There were even persona ice cream socials.

By the time I left Microsoft in 2010, the Windows 7 team had abandoned personas. User researchers would only whisper the word in public. I met with a group forming a panel discussion called Are personas dead? As I recall, John Pruitt and I were the only ones taking the pro-persona side. Everyone else had abandoned them.

I’m still a strong believer in personas (but with a twist, as you will soon see). But what happened to make personas acceptance fall so far so fast?

Are personas necessary?

A persona is a fake person constructed with real user research data to represent a class of target users. Designing for users is, after all, the essential foundation of user-centered design, so it makes sense to have a tool to help teams define their targets. You can’t hit a target if you don’t have one.

The problem that personas solve is that without clear targets, everyone on the team forms their own independent picture of the target user. And somehow, those target users always seem remarkably similar to the people on the team itself…or perhaps their mothers. Furthermore, that target user may change from feature to feature, or even from discussion to discussion. Ultimately, without a clear definition, target users are basically whatever the person speaking wants them to be at the time. Not a very solid foundation.

This problem is known as the elastic user. Personas are a tool to define and communicate a clear, fixed target user—building a strong foundation for user centered design.

So, what’s not to like?

In practice, personas didn’t achieve that goal. User researchers would spend a significant amount of time gathering data about target users, defining personas to represent them, and crafting detailed persona documents.

Design teams would then use those personas by learning the persona names, their high level descriptions, and…well, that’s about it. So for Windows Vista, Abby was the soccer mom and she had a teenage son named Toby. Few people knew much more. Instead of having discussions about generic users, design teams would discuss what Abby and Toby wanted, but without regard to any facts in those detailed documents that the user researchers so diligently compiled.

In practice, “using personas” often boiled down to replacing an elastic user with an equally elastic user with a very specific first name. Instead, personas should have been about creating user models for a decision making framework using a well understood process. Mindlessly substituting “the user” with “Abby” wasn’t really a big step forward in user-centered design.

Doing personas right—don’t walk a mile in the user’s shoes

User researchers compiled these detailed persona documents because that’s what Alan Cooper recommended in The Inmates are Running the Asylum. The goal was to make the personas feel real—so that you could walk a mile in their shoes.

An unfortunate fact of life: People don’t read large documents. So nobody really knew any facts about the personas. And even if they did, relevant facts for specific decisions were often missing. For example, if you were designing a search feature, chances are the long persona document would provide no useful information about the user’s knowledge, habits, or preferences about search.

Instead of creating a long personal life story, why not create a short user model that focuses only on the details that affect design decisions at hand? Better to have a few relevant facts that everybody knows.

An example

In Design scenarios—and how thrilled users ruin them, I gave a scenario for Joe “the shipping guy,” who needs to access Snarfbladt info using a BladtBlaster device. Let’s make a persona for Joe.

To help you see the value of personas, please read the scenario (the good example at the end, not the bad one) before continuing, and put some thought into designing a solution.

Got it?

Now a traditional persona might be several pages long and give all kinds of personal and professional details about Joe. Much of that detail will be completely irrelevant to the design problem at hand—what I like to call the “four Ks”: details like koffee, kids, kats, and kars. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

I believe the long story of largely irrelevant details is what ruins traditional personas. So instead, let’s get right to the point with facts about Joe that are relevant to the scenario:

  • Has basic computer literacy
  • Likely right handed, but may be left handed
  • Received 20 minutes of BladtBlaster training
  • Top 6 tasks are 95% of his BladtBlaster usage
  • Familiar with Snarfbladt info, but doesn’t have it memorized
  • Looks up only one Snarfbladt at a time
  • Uses are cart if delivering many packages, o/w carries them
  • Prefers to use the BladtBlaster with a single hand using thumb
  • Works mostly indoors, but has to travel outdoors between buildings, so may wear gloves during cold weather
  • Always in a hurry—appreciates things that save time

That’s it! That’s all we need! This user model contains facts about Joe and his relationship to the product that are relevant to making design decisions. No life story here. No mile in Joe’s shoes.

I don’t know about you, but I now have a much better understanding of Joe and can make better design decisions for Joe, more quickly and confidently. For example, I know that a good design can optimize for right-handed users, but not in a way that harms left-handed users. To simplify the UI, I know that a good design will focus on doing the top 6 tasks efficiently, in a way that doesn’t require memorization. I know that a good design should have buttons large enough for use with a gloved thumb. And since Joe has basic computer literacy, the UI can have basic computer terms (like save or network), but should avoid advanced ones (like virtual or IP address).

Given several different design alternatives, I now know what Joe is going to want. By documenting this persona, everyone on the team will be designing for the same target. If someone makes an assertion about Joe that’s not in the model, we can easily flag it and either validate it or reject it.

The elastic user problem is solved!

If you do only five things:
1) Keep it simple and focused. Focus the persona on the design task at hand, not the target user’s entire life story. See what you can do with one page and at most two hours, using the facts that you already know. Anything beyond that is detail you won’t need anyway.
2) Make a user model, not a life story. Just give that specific facts to help make good decisions. If there’s not a potential design decision behind the detail, don’t include it. Don’t walk a mile in the person’s shoes. If your persona looks like an online dating profile, you are doing it wrong.
3) Use them when making decisions! If you aren’t actively using your models when making design decisions, you’re doing it wrong. And by “actively using”, I mean applying the model not making arbitrary assertions. Flag assertions that are outside the model and validate them.
4) Train your team to use a simple process. Give some simple training on how to use personas productively. Don’t assume that people will figure it out on their own—my experience shows that they won’t.
5) Be mindful of politics. If you can’t use personas for political reasons, just call them user models. If it helps, consider calling them “agile user models.” Most likely nobody will catch on.

Coda: It is not my intention to downplay the role of user research in this process. If your team has user researchers, of course they will own and drive this effort, using a far more substantial process than I describe here. Still, experienced user researchers will vouch for the importance of concise communication for their effectiveness within a team. Ease of use equals use, and that applies to design techniques. So keep your personas simple and focused.

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