The persona is dead, long live the persona!

VI Company
Publish date

Almost every marketing- or UX Research team has them, personas. They spend a lot of time and energy in creating them. Interview end-users, try to find out the demographic factors like age and income and write inspiring quotes that the personas could have said. In fact they are doing a pretty good job. Big beautiful posters are printed, presented to the board of directors and put up on the wall next to the development team.

The personas hang there for a while, sometimes someone stops and takes a look, and after a couple of months the poster ends up in one of the drawers next to the brand book. Despite of all the effort, no-one really cares.

So what are the most common reasons personas fail in the real world?

  1. The personas are created by the marketing- or UX Research team
    For weeks the marketing- or UX Research team dives into analytics, organizes focus groups and executes other qualitative research. They put a lot of hard work in creating these personas, visualize them and present them to the development team. Despite of all the hard work, the personas don’t work. The reason is simple: the developers weren’t attending the focus groups, didn’t analyze the statistics and didn’t meet the end-users. They don’t have a proper feeling for the end users and therefore don’t know how to work with them. For them it’s just a poster with hollow phrases and a nice stock photo.

  2. There is no clear focus
    We have persona A. Her name is Julia a 25 year old single business woman who lives in the city. Next to her is persona B. His name is Harrold, 72 years old and living in the forest with his wife and dog. Can you see where it goes wrong? Even for the best developer it’s impossible to make both Julia and Harrold happy, to create a platform which meet the needs of both, so he ends up developing what he likes himself.

  3. Your persona is a Superhero
    Let’s get back to Harrold. We already know that he is 72 and living in the forest. He is retired and likes to play Candy Crush Saga on his iPad. He owns an Acer laptop with Windows 10 and an iPhone 6 which he uses to WhatsApp his daughter who lives in the city. He is smart and tech-savvy, knows how to connect a printer and has no problem to open a link into a new page using control-click. Well, newsflash: Harrold is a Superhero. Personas should be realistic and not a hotchpotch of all the good qualities of the target group. Because personas are ‘imaginary’ it makes it easier to write them in a way that the characteristics are beneficial for the development process. Does Harrold really own an iPhone 6 and an Acer laptop with Windows 10? I don’t think so.

  4. Bla bla bla bla… Marketing
    If the persona is written realistically with a clear focus, most of the time the marketing phrases aren’t clear and applicable. In a persona-card you find phrases like: ‘I am a traveler and like to explore the world’ or ‘I love hanging out in a park and not worrying about my personal finance.’ Well, this information is good to know but what does it really mean? My guess: make the website responsive and put a slogan on the homepage which implies that the customer doesn’t have to worry about their personal finance. We’ve checked the boxes, the website is deployed, we are all happy with the result and the personas go back in the drawer. But, are your end-users really helped by that?

What can you do?

‘Think - Observe - Become’

First of all, personas can be helpful! Don’t get me wrong, I work with them myself and most of the time it’s a useful reflection instrument. In my role as Product Owner / UX Researcher every design decision I argue with my development team, persona x (from now on: ‘Harrold’) is watching over my shoulder. So how can you transform a boring persona poster into a real Harrold, make developers consider Harrold while making design decisions and make them enthusiastic to keep Harrold in the loop?

  1. Think: Do you know ‘Harrold’?
    This one is easy. When you read the persona-card the marketing department just gave you, think about your social circle. Do you know someone who looks- and acts like Harrold? Maybe you have a crazy uncle who is always joking on birthday parties but has no clue when it comes to technology. He has a Nokia 3310 and ends all of his text messages with: ‘With kind regards, Harrold’. This is the person you should focus on. What would the real ‘Harrold’ do?

  2. Observe: Visit ‘Harrold’ once in a while
    Now we know and discussed who your own ‘Harrold’ is. Imagine him using technology. Do you really know how he uses his computer or his phone and what challenges he faces? To understand ‘Harrold’ give him a visit once in a while. Sit next to him when he, for example, uses an iPad. Does he use the ‘home button’, does he know how to go to his e-mail inbox to click on an activation link? And what effort does it take before he can complete a ‘simple’ task? High-five for valuable insights!

  3. Acting like ‘Harrold’
    I understand that this may sound silly. How can you become ‘Harrold’? The answer is simple: try to empathize. The best way to understand the problems of your target group is to face them yourself. For example: try to book a vacation on a PC from 1999 or use a Nokia 3310 for a week. Or, if you can’t miss your beloved smartphone: try to find public transportation information while holding a walking stick on a busy train station. Is your website still as easy accessible as you thought? Now you feel, experience and understand what hurdles ‘Harrold’ copes with every day.

So bring your imaginary Harrold to a ‘demo’ once in a while, let him attend a design review and discuss User Stories with him. The outcome may surprise you. So dust off the persona poster and get to know your Harrold. If you use your imagination, observation and experience an abstract persona-card will transform into a useful tool that will help you develop User Centered products.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on using personas! Get in touch!

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