By Frank Spillers

person peeking out of garbage can

Summary: Most persona development efforts are self-sabotaging because of one reason: a lack of good user research. The good news is this can be quickly turned around with an incredible impact on your software project and your overall organization's return on investment. This article explores why and how you can salvage your personas once and for all. 

Personas as Garbage, but why?

Many organizations use personas. Personas are the fun customer sketches that software development teams use to prioritize user needs. However most persona efforts are junk, owing to the origins of data used to inspire personas. We know several product managers who don't "believe" in personas.

Digital agencies are the worst offenders for creating garbage personas, followed by internal teams in start-ups and enterprise environments. Even worse, UX experts, authors and persona template tools developers have largely glossed over the persona data source issue. It is as if, just inventing a persona is a worthy endeavor, in and of itself. This is not the case. Personas lacking authenticity can undermine your product insight, persona buy-in and overall investment.

Persona Credibility and Validity: Why it's important

Credibility is one of the biggest things that internal team stakeholders complain about, when it comes to personas. Personas even sound fictitious, written in a narrative format that attempts to interpret user needs. Since personas are a component of creating Outside-In Design, that means data needs to come from observing and interviewing users, not from internal assumptions!

In researching data source for his excellent book (Validating Product Ideas), Tomer Sharon interviewed 200 product managers and found that: 

86% of product managers are inspired by a personal pain experience vs. only 2% who do User Research for product idea validation.

This tells us that User Research/ Ethnography is sorely under-looked in product management. Even within the UX field, User Research is under-performed. Of the last 30 resumes we reviewed for UX Designer or related positions, typically 10% or less have user research experience. Instead we all go around assuming market leaders like Apple don't do user research. Not true! It's one of the factors guiding their success.

The important point is that little user research is being done, yet personas are still being created, based only on internal assumptions with ease. This is the garbage problem and likely points to a bias toward quant-itative research tools over qual-itative research. This doesn't mean teams don't want to do User Research/ Ethnography, however...

A study conducted by Forrester Research found that:

72% of businesses said they wanted to do Ethnography (observation, diary studies, cocreation) feeling it could 'provide new information we do not have today'. Compare that to 39% for surveys from the same study. 

But in reality, most ignored major qualitative research and testing methodologies: 44% didn't use ethnography/ user interviews but relied heavily on search engine search term analysis (75%) and behavioral web analytics (72%) as well as online survey and feedback tools (67%). [Source: Forrester for Extractable, 2011].

In our webinar, Personas in Action we emphasized the importance of getting clear on data sources influencing your personas.  Persona authenticity ranges from low to high depending on where you get your data/ insight: 

persona- data sources table

How Personas Impact Your Bottom Line, or Not

Personas developed from field studies (aka Ethnography) can make a huge difference in product validation. The distinction ought to be made that generic user research is very different to deep-dive user research, that follows methodology best practices. Moreover, personas have a direct correlation to profitability in two regards: a) ROI including sales, satisfaction and conversion, and b) Organizational UX maturity. Let's look at each of these briefly.

How Personas impact ROI:

Forrester Research studied redesigns and found that teams using personas had a 4X return on investment over teams who did not  (see INFOGRAPHIC Making a Strong Business Case for UX). Note that Forrester is one of the few consistent voices that emphasizes the imperative for personas based on field studies:

"A persona is a vivid, narrative description of a fictitious person who represents a segment of your user population. It is based on primary research that uncovers the real attitudes, goals, and behaviors of the users it represents" (Best Practices in UX Design report). 

How Personas impact Organizational Maturity:

One of the primary organizational benefits to conducting User Research/Ethnography, of which personas are a deliverable, is prioritization and alignment with user needs and desires. This avoids the classic problem inherent with Inside-Out decision-making. Avoiding internal assumptions or highest-paid-voice-in-the-room opinions can turn an organization around and make it smarter. This quote from a former UX evangelist at Apple captures it best:

"It's actually the engineering culture, and the way the organization is structured to appreciate and support design. Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers. And that's what makes everything about the product so much better . . . much more than any individual designer or design team". -Mark Kawano (interview in Fast Company)


It's time to get more strict about data sources with persona development. Assuming all input into the creation of personas is equal can lead development and design teams down dangerous pathways. Under-valuing or leaving out the crucial step of gathering data, insights and empathy from the contextual environment where users solve your problems can hurt your overall efforts. Fighting for the necessity to do user research is critical to ROI, buy-in, validation, insight and innovation. 

Want to learn how to do User Research like an expert? Check out this new online bootcamp: Discovering User Needs- beyond Requirements and Into Desirability 

p.s. Sign up to our newsletter and get up to 40% OFF...