Personas 101: No design without a user

March 10, 2017

To give an idea to those of you who are not familiar with the term and the concepts of personas a little introduction: Personas are often used in the design processes to help think about the potential users of products or possible customer segments.

The idea to use personas for representation of ‘real users’ has been around for more than thirty years. It became widely accepted when Alan Cooper, an American software designer, popularised the term at the end of the nineties. Although today personas are used in professions far beyond software engineering, there has been an on-going debate about their usefulness.

For some personas represent an overly simplified concept in an ever more complex world. They’d probably say personas are stereotypical images and biased representations and therefore they do not help to create useful approaches at all. This is simply because personas often do not take complex situations into account.

Advocates of personas, however, feel that they are still relevant because they help to think from a user’s perspective (thinking about user needs first). This is especially important when diverse teams work together. It allows professionals from various background to focus their attention on a joint idea.

Throughout the past years, I’ve used personas myself with various success. From my experience, I can tell that the more a persona is focused on observation and critical reflection the better its description works. Conceptions with biased or uncritical data, however, will easily get you in troublesome waters.

Here some three easy ground rules:
(1) Never believe in a persona’s story. This sounds obvious, but it is too easy to get tempted to do so. Personas might have a face, a job title, and a birthplace but does not mean that there is anything true about the place they occupy. Sometimes, in the heart of the moment, this becomes strangely difficult. This counts especially for those times when a persona backs up your design.

(2) Never use a real person, especially not a person you know well, as a role model for a persona. Personas have to work as general descriptions and not in specific accounts. Creating a good persona is tough. It takes time. Do not fall for going the easy road. Better be intuitive but also critical with your intuition.

(3) Always combine various data sources, e.g. demographics, observations, and interviews. Ask people about motivations and behaviours. Have keen senses, especially when you observe that people are themselves not aware of something they do or talk about. Write everything down.

(4) Lastly, be aware of your own position. Beliefs and concepts can immensely affect how a persona is established and therefore why a design is created. Stereotypes of gender, culture or socioeconomic power always play their part. The bubble we live in is not the world that is out there. Think more in many bubbles of many worlds.

The pictures shown are persona illustrations I created for a client in London.