The persistent persona

Peter Jones Wu Wei

I have to admit not getting the fuss about personas. With a raft of new UX books out in recent years, including 2 books on personas in 2006 alone, I am always amused at the extent to which we (in UX, but also in design generally) believe we must re-invent everything. As if its better than some previous generation.

Personas are tools for describing the users attending to the products and services we are designing for. They are basically user profiles, succinct depictions of the salient characteristics of a given user type. Personas capture a set of meaningful properties around a given user categoru, with a name and fictitious background that personalizes it as a representation of a customer.

They have somehow become a big deal. Forrester conducted an international consultant’s study on the best practices in personas in 2007, and now they even offer a persona design course. There are blogs just about personas, such as this one that promotes the Forrester study.

Scott Berkun’s (oops – Joshua Porter’s, of course – and thanks for visiting, that’s one more thing I did not know about you!) So Joshua’s recent discussion about personas (and designing for yourself) spurs my title question, and answers it. I agree with most of what he’s saying, and he outlines a kind of essential history and context of personas which is worth reading, (and if it were in fact the only thing you would read on personas). And he switches from taking on personas as a communication tool within the design team to the notion of the designer finding their own empathy for the user, persona or no-persona. And that essentially designers can design for themselves if so enlightened (which they always have anyway, and often do a very good job if they know the domain). But designers don’t need the personas for themselves – maybe I missed this (it is a long piece) – but designers construct personas for everyone else, and then continue with design work after having wowed the team with their bit of research presented in persona format.

As far as the axioms of designing for yourself, it depends. It seems people in UX are often not trained in Human Factors, or understand the psychology of tacit knowledge. You cannot do knowledge elicitation on yourself, and you cannot measure your own responses to interaction. If you are considering product design, it helps to have separation and empathic understanding. If you are a designer, you are NOT an expert in your user’s work practice, but you can become a kind of participant observer if you are a good researcher. I design for doctors sometimes – I’m not a doctor, but have learned a lot about their work practice and everyday drivers and constraints. So I advocate research-design cycles so that designers can learn over time.

I also quibble with the provenance of Alan Cooper as the formulator of the method. As with everything in UX, there were many historical priors. Cooper only appropriated the the term persona, as part of a best-selling book. We called them User Profiles for many years (those years before Alan transformed from Visual Basic guru to UCD/UX guru). We all adapt tools of the trade. So it seems in UX, everything is new again, all the time. But as kids of the 80’s, some of us “invented” User Profiles because we needed them, and we used them to describe representative users in sufficient detail to support design rationale arguments to developers and product managers. I don’t recall ever using them as major design artifacts though – and they were and are communications tools. To promote them as more seems to demote other methods that we ignore in our attempts to perfect personas. Just look around – How many personas have you seen with well-developed user scenarios describing an ecologically valid use situation? Now that’s something useful.

Sorry to be such a curmudgeon, but that’s what blogs are for. I suggest that the fascination with personas is a way of elevating our methods to an importance they don’t deserve, perhaps just because they are so simple and representative. After all, they are a tool our internal customers in marketing actually understand about our UX deliverables. Try explaining activity theory to them, and framing the user in their context of social activity. They will ask us to stick with the personas, no doubt.

Finally, we should recognize that in order to publish something (like another book or post that promotes personas) we have to create some differences, otherwise there’s no real contribution. But if we have nothing new to say, why print more books about personas? Blogs are a more ecologically sound approach anyway. The fields comprising user experience are starting to feel like electronica genres, with their dozens of nuanced categories that only DJs care about. I know, breakbeat is very different from broken beat, but who cares, if you just want to dance! So let’s dance! (And when you’re in Dayton or Toronto, come dance with us).