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The value of personas

By John ~ Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Anybody who knows me well will know I am a cynical old git, although these days in an effort to improve my image I might tell you I am a believer in the scientific method… as an excuse for being a cynical old git. I often feel cynical about personas but use them a lot. This thread on Twitter prompted me to try and explain why:

This isn’t about to be a persona science 101, I am simply not qualified to make such a post and besides you can read more about that over at UX Magazine. Instead it’s more why I feel even the idea of personas is valuable.

The ideal is it’s all about the users but for us mere mortals it’s too often about budgets, business requirements, corporate politics, marketing ideas trumping good UX, the design committee, no time for usability testing, no time for anything in fact! Sometimes even physical restrictions play a part, and yes this has happened to me: well that’s all very well in principal but our logistical situation simply won’t support that, this I have dubbed as the warehousing problem, or why a website alone won’t fix your business. To be perfectly honest in situations where time and budget are big barriers give me some usability testing and a participatory design session over personas every time.

To be possibly a little too honest in a situation where corporate politics are a big factor and the HiPPO dictates, I’d probably avoid personas altogether and sip a nice cup of tea whilst taking solace in a well thumbed copy of Undercover User Experience Design and yes, like many people I suspect, I’ve been here too.

Personas, then, are only useful if you can make the case to the team you are working in that they are beneficial.

Characters in our story

I always start with the idea that we have a story to tell and every story needs some characters. Rarely are users a regular presence on the team and it’s easy to forget in the excitement and thrust of creating and inventing who has to use this monster once we are done. How often do you hear others, and if you’re really honest yourself, saying, ‘Well, when I do such and such, I do it this way’ or words to that effect. A real value for me in having personas to hand is to encourage role play. Pretend you are this person, what would they do? Also, as long as we have a story, we should always have characters in that story. Personas shouldn’t live in a dusty folder somewhere they should be a living breathing representation of our customers. Personas could perhaps be viewed as an ongoing ad campaign for the user; stick them on the wall where they can be seen!

You can’t please all of the people all of the time

There’s just no way you can build something for everyone and retain any sense of purpose. Picking a primary, secondary and possibly tertiary persona is a useful way to keep focus, or to give a specific example, to help make the case for or against something, maybe like responsive design. If your persona suggets your users just don’t use smart phones, should you bother with responsive design at all? At the very least it might warrant further investigation before investing the time. I over simplify but if a persona is representation of a group of users I find they help to fuel discussion about what’s important for that group of users.

These personas are crappy, we should validate them

Keeping in mind that the personas I start with are often very light weight and reliant on insights from the business and any data they may have, a bit of data from marketing surveys and perhaps a few diary studies and maybe a few interviews I am very happy to openly say, the personas we start with are probably a bit crap and we should be careful how we use them. From there is an opportunity to validate them. At this point you should probably be asking for a massive budget to get the job done properly and if you can get it great! If not, one way to validate personas is through usability testing sessions. Can you recruit people who fit this persona? Does talking to these people give you any more insights? Another way is through diary studies… but that’s a blog post for another day. Perhaps, then, personas are also useful for fuelling other valuable UX activities.

The elephant in the room

In short a persona or two, with a photo, with a name, printed out, pinned to the wall of a workshop represents the elephant in the room, the one thing we shouldn’t forget about, the people who pay the bills.