VIDEO: Personas- Keep or Drop?

Summary: Personas can lead you astray unless you understand their meaning, “mask,” or hat a user wears, to complete a goal and task.  Viewing personas as role-based representations of these functions users use for problem-solving works better.

Where do personas come from?

Behavioral user research reveals users’ motivations and behaviors in the context of their goals, tasks, and sub-tasks. User research (behavioral profiling in research methods like Ethnography or Task Analysis) helps articulate role-based personas. These composites of user needs (pain and joy) highlight the tasks users perform and the goals they aim to achieve. Research-based personas that focus on roles and tasks, not demographics, yield the best design tools for understanding user priorities and exploring scenarios.

VIDEO: Personas- Keep or Drop?


Frank Spillers:

“Personas: Keep or Drop?”

“I got an urgent call on a Sunday morning, and the question from the intern of the startup with the CEO was, “Are we going to launch the website in Latin?”… and I was like, “Uh, no.” It was a wireframe– that had Latin or so-called Lorum Ipsum– which don’t use anymore. And that confusion of whether we’re going to launch a website in a dead language, like Latin, speaks to being familiar with your audience!

Now most people feel familiar with personas– in that they either think they’re garbage or great. Alan Cooper, who said he invented personas, did a real disservice by not clarifying and staying (too) high level with his definitions. He allowed people to misinterpret and provide demographic-style personas, you know, describing someone’s income or age and things like that… So a lot of people want to abandon personas altogether… And the question I have is “How can you reform personas?”

See 5 Persona Distinctions: How to User Personas Properly

So I say keep! (your personas)

And here’s how: First, remember that a “persona” means mask– it’s actually a Latin word that means mask. And a mask you can think of as a role or a hat that a user wears. A user’s role tells you what big problem they’re trying to solve. It’s not a job title! It’s that a role reveals the function– right– so, for example, I’m a parent, I’m a husband, I’m a father, I’m a son– these are all functions that I perform through those roles. So it’s not demographics; it’s not: 50 years old, makes 100K, lives in New York– not that helpful for design purposes. It’s a role showing user motivation, pain and joy— and the role is the most important part of the persona because we use it to guide design and dev.

Now, Brenda Laurel, who’s a wonderful pioneer in UX, said that “your personas are not real if they don’t show pain,” and she also said, “Remember to add joy.” So why is this important? Well, our field is terrible at clarifying techniques… In a scholarly academic review in 2022 about personas they described personas as fictional persons that represent real user segments… Not fictional!l Not segments!

A veteran ux researcher Nate Bolt said “Doing design without research (and personas really require research) is like getting into a taxi and saying “Drive!”. According to Forester Research, only 16% of firms regularly do this type of upfront research. So a lot of people try and create personas without actually basing them on real world pain and joy. Even the authors of The Persona Lifecycle– which is like the Bible on personas– ‘s a great book: I contributed five sidebar pieces to that book– the authors of that book were in conflict over the difference between demographic data versus task-driven or behavioral data. The spoiler is that the task and goal data in describing personas won! User goals and tasks articulate roles– the function that a user performs– and according to statistics on persona adoption: like how many people use it…

When they were at the height of their heyday, around the time that that book was being written, in 2006, it was like 16% of companies…and by 2020, it shot up to 63% of companies. So maybe it took like around 20 years to get the adoption of personas… but they are still love/ hate right…Forester Research found that you can gain 20% productivity improvements if you use personas, and in another study, Forester found that you can get a four times return on investments on a redesign if your team uses personas versus if they don’t so use personas. (That is) if you define them only as roles.

Remember a role can go in the name of your persona using what I call an “associating adjective”. That means, for example, duplicate “Debbie Debbie” spends all day de-duplicating, and we actually saw this user– several of these users– starting their day with a Red Bull– you know–and also some supplements– some energy supplements. This is just a serious job all day long removing duplications from a software application. My other favorite is “Been Around the Block Bob”… he’s sick of banks; he’s been to all the banks, and he doesn’t trust them, so he’s looking for alternatives a credit union. “Been around the block Bob”: that Association adjective helps you remember the persona.

Next make sure that you conduct field studies: ethnographic research, task analysis, and contextual inquiry. Personas are data profiles of user behavior that’s why you need the research. You translate those into roles… We’ve seen huge returns from role-based personas at Experience Dynamics, but we’re clear about what they are and what they’re not. So keep them if you can use them with care… Thank you so much, and see you soon!”

Go Deeper: Request an in-house, private Personas Training

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