Over the last few days, I’ve taken part in (and facilitated parts of) an intense workshop meant to define the user experience of a new product. In the room we had representatives from pretty much the entire team — software engineers, hardware engineers, industrial designers, interaction designers, marketing, brand, and even the CEO.
At the end of the first day, we found ourselves a little unmoored — even though we had talked about our presumed users (this project is to launch a brand new product into the market, so there are no existing users), the discussion was nebulous. We needed an anchor.
So on the morning of the second day we dove into a discussion of personas — those archetypal users of the product. We had three personas (Casey, Jessica, and Eric), and we talked about (and occasionally argued about) them for quite a while, until we arrived at a shared understanding of who they are, and what they would get out of the product.
This discussion proved enormously valuable — it lead to some coherence around who the product was for, and it helped focus our discussion of desired experiences, and, in turn, functional requirements. We referred to these personas for the remainder of the workshop, and they came in handy for resolving conversations that got stuck in “Well, I think…”
So, I was a bit surprised last night to read Steve Portigal’s article in the latest Interactions magazine, “Persona Non Grata.” (The first element of surprise was how it had the exact same title as Dan’s Adaptive Path essay from over two years ago). What most surprised me was the vitriol Steve cast at the practice of persona development — he essentially derides it as a waste of time, an exercise that purports to build empathy but in reality distances us from our users.
The thing is, when you read the article, it becomes clear that Steve is talking not about personas, but poorly conceived personas. Like any tool, personas can be wielded effectively or not. Steve is right in that the bulk of personas out there don’t serve their desired purpose, because they get too cutesy with alliterative names, or label people as types as opposed to individuals, or become cliched. But that’s not the fault of personas, that’s the fault of bad personas.
In our practice, we haven’t seen a tool for building empathy as effective as a well-constructed persona. We’ve used it numerous times to great success.
My frustration with the article is two-fold. First, because so many personas are bad doesn’t mean that we should throw out the practice. That’s like saying we should stop making movies because most movies suck. Steve commits Jakob’s Fallacy, perhaps most famous in his “Flash 99% bad“, wherein you dismiss a whole category of activity because the bulk of its practice is poor.
Second, no constructive alternative is presented. Steve could have taken two paths — either delineate what it takes to create a truly productive persona, or present other tools that successfully accomplish the objectives that personas fail to meet. However, he does neither, so at the end of the article, you’re simply left wondering, “Well, if personas suck, how do I make sense of my user research? How do I build empathy across a product team?”