Personas: Why They Do Work

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash
Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

I wrote this blog post for Pàu, therefore it was first published on the Pàu Stories.

A few weeks ago I read a tweet from a UX influencer questioning personas. I was stunned by how many other UX professionals also disagree with the effectiveness of personas. However, if you create personas the right way and in the right context, it can be one of the most powerful alignment tools among the UX methodologies toolset. 

This article is not about how to create the right personas. It’s about why the right personas do work. And if you are not a fan of personas like the many other UX professionals on Twitter, I hope this article will make you change your mind.


When are personas a good idea

No data, no truth

Personas are a good idea when you want to create a product that fulfils real user needs, is useful, easy and pleasant to use. Therefore we need to understand who our users are and what these users need. Understanding our users is one of the fundamental principles of user-centred design. If we don’t understand our user, we make decisions for ourselves. Furthermore, we’ll make decisions based on assumptions.

“Never assume, because when you ASSUME, you make an ASS of U and ME.”

Jerry Belson, Hollywood writer, The Odd Couple

Having a ton of data is great. But you’ll need to transform all this raw data into something understandable for our team or stakeholders. Stakeholders need to be aligned. There are many UX deliverables we can create as an alignment tool such as personas to get on the same page with stakeholders. If we can’t communicate our research findings we can’t generate the best solutions for minimising risks. Personas are a powerful medium for aligning UX professionals and stakeholders. They help us overcome the disadvantages of showing research data alone. Some top of mind benefits of personas are:

  • getting rid of self-referential design;
  • giving us a source of truth to use for decision making;
  • helping us keeping a narrow focus throughout the product life cycles

Why do personas work

Experience taking

First of all, we as human beings love to take experiences. A great example of this is watching a sad movie. We can have emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses with a fictional character. Well-created personas are very good at bringing this experience to your team and stakeholders.

Theory of Mind

Secondly, personas can help us predict someone’s behaviour by understanding their mental state. This is called the theory of mind which refers to our ability to ascribe mental states to other people.

In psychology, theory of mind refers to the capacity to understand other people by ascribing mental states to them (that is, surmising what is happening in their mind). (…) Possessing a functional theory of mind is considered crucial for success in everyday human social interactions. People use such a theory when analysing, judging, and inferring others’ behaviours.

Source: WikiPedia, Theory of Mind

Empathy and storytelling

For thousands of years human beings have been creating and telling stories. People have the ability to understand and relate to the feelings of other people. Evolution made us extremely good at remembering stories. Stories were used to teach us about dangers and challenges in life. This increased our chances of survival. By understanding the user’s context and adding faces with stories to the output, personas can help us tell that story and bring empathy to the meeting room.

Furthermore, researchers of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) did a study where they used two groups of radiologists. One group had to examine X-rays without a photo of the patient, and the other group had to examine X-rays with the photo of the patient next to them. The study showed that radiologists who were exposed to a photograph of the patient wrote more punctual reports on the X-ray images than the radiologists who had to examine without a photo of the patient.

Moreover, a study conducted by Frank Long at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin did an experiment with a group of students that had the assignment to design a software interface over a period of 5 weeks. Each group of students had to complete the assignment with different tools. Three groups had to design the software interface with a list of design specifications, three other groups had access to a persona with illustration and a written scenario, and three more groups had a persona with real image and a scenario storyboard. The study showed that designs with personas and scenarios scored better than the groups that only had access to a list of design specs.

Common challenges can be a drawback to create personas

According to the tweets I read a few weeks ago a lot of UX professionals struggle with the fact that personas are often seen as a waste of time and money, or that they are abandoned even before they are finished. This is not necessarily true. Personas can overcome these challenges. I’ll write about two common challenges you might face when personas are a good idea.

No leadership buy-in

Leadership can be quite confident about knowing their users, especially when they are doing this for a very long time. Therefore — as mentioned before — it’s important to think of personas as an alignment tool. Personas can help align the team and end unnecessary discussions.

No ownership within the team

Another great example is about a team lacking ownership of the personas. Personas created by an individual are rarely effective. The team won’t feel an association with the personas and therefore won’t create the expected empathy with your end user. Therefore, stakeholders and users should be included in the process to create ownership within the team.

Conclusion

There is so much more to tell about personas. Besides knowing the benefits and when personas are a good idea, the challenge also lies in the creation and effort needed to create the right personas. Including the right data in your personas is one of the key ingredients to success. The right personas can sometimes be used for many years, in many projects, across an entire organisation. When to create what type of personas? And how much effort is needed when? As the answer to many UX methodologies goes: it depends. However, that is for another time.

References

Personas: Turn User Data Into User-Centred Design, NN/group, attended February 2022, https://www.nngroup.com/training/course/3744/personas/

Assumption quote, Jerry Belson, WikiPedia, edited on 27 February 2022,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Belson

Theory of Mind, WikiPedia, edited on 20 April 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_mind

Patient Photos Spur Radiologist Empathy And Eye for Detail, ScienceDaily, December 2008, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081202080809.htm

Real or Imaginary: The Effectiveness of Using Personas in Product Design, Frontend, Frank Long, 2009, https://www.frontend.com/thinking/using-personas-in-product-design/