Are personas really useful?

Are personas really useful and are people in the team going to use them? Some thoughts on one of the most overrated design fads.

Last update: September 2013. 

In my experience as a user experience designer, personas are largely overvalued, and might not bring the benefits that are expected. I’ve seen companies spending a huge amount of money to create personas that nobody ever looked at. When Alan Cooper introduced personas in his bookThe lunatics are running the asylum, he described a completely new way to design products where users’ need are the main focus, and that change was such an important step forward. But look at the way personas are used by organisations: do they help designing better products? In the vast majority of cases, they don’t, or very little.

Nobody would argue that personas are a useful design tool, but I don’t see much value in spending time to model archetypal representations of user types without focusing on the practical, specific needs that real people will want to fulfill. As a designer, one needs to foresee what people will look for and how they will try to accomplish their goals, in a specific context of use. When Cooper introduced the concept of personas, he also recommended writing scenariosas a way to empower design. The reality, though, is that design teams tend to focus on personas and neglet scenarios, or make a limited use of them; I don’t see how a good design solution can come out of that.

Personas tend to be exhaustive where it’s not needed (demographics, names, pictures are not necessary most of the times), while they fail to summarise the complex variety of needs and usage scenarios that real users express in real life situations.

Despite that, personas have become very popular. I believe this is due to the fact that non designers who influence the business decisions and therefore the design, and among these, strategists and marketing people, see personas as tools familiar to what they are used to deal with, such as marketing demographic segments. Therefore they are in favour of personas as a product development tool.

Many of these people foster the creation of personas with high expectations in mind and the desire to engage people, making sometimes valuable efforts, but unfortunately they are not used to put themselves in the users’s shoes. And the need to sell and to convince people is still stronger than the need of giving people what they need. When personas are developed in this context, far from an authentic design perspective, they end up being almost useless. How do you double check whether the design solutions you are choosing will really offer people what they need when they need it?

With this respect, it’s interesting to see what Donald Norman says about activity-centered design:

Donald Norman: Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful