Are personas such a bad thing?

We all have love-hate relationships with people, places, activities and things.

I absolutely love London! The million and one cultures, arts, fashion and nightlife. That’s what makes me fall in love with this city over and over again. At the same time, I deeply hate London! The commute when I get crushed on the central line at 8 am in the morning, the two hours journey to travel from one part of the city to another and the coffees becoming smaller by the second — although I do love a good flat white!

Personas seem to be one of those subjects that receive as much love as hate from businesses and practitioners in the industry. I have worked with startups as well as international companies and I have noticed that we do not talk enough about aims and objectives of personas and sometimes businesses use them incorrectly without understanding what to do with them.

I have heard a lot of companies with a low UX maturity talk about how well they know their users. When I meet stakeholders to discuss about user experience, they always make sure to let me know that they have worked in the business for several years and this should automatically translate into how much they know about their users. I have noticed that often there’s no research to validate assumptions and there’s a lack of documentation to aggregate this knowledge. Sometimes businesses feel that is enough to just know their users but this might not be enough when you want to get every team on board.

How are we sure that we are talking about the same users if we are not talking about them and we are not documenting those notions?

When you hire someone in your team you don’t just trust candidates who say they are good at using Photoshop. You ask to see their portfolio and their CV first. If they seem to have what takes to do the job, you invite them for an interview and you try to understand more about them to see if they fit in the team and if they have the skills they need to fulfil the position. Most companies go much further than this but you get my point. Why don’t we ask the same questions about users?

Let’s ask who users are, what their goals are and why they make certain decisions. Why are we scared of asking these questions?

Andy Budd — founder of the digital agency Clearleft — describes personas as a communication tool and “[…] as a way of synthesising a large amount of rich and complex data, generated through observations, interviews and surveys, into something that can travel around an organisation, and be consumed by people who weren’t necessarily involved in the conversation, or even have regulated access to customers.”

I have found personas to be an important tool to align stakeholder’s knowledge of users. When we worked on the redesign of the Rethink Mental Illness website, we created primary and secondary personas to summarise the data collected from analytics, survey and user interviews. They became essential when talking to stakeholders to clearly align everyone’s thinking. Everyone knew ‘Jane who experiences depression’ or ‘Beth who is a carer for her son’ as well as the other personas we created. The use of personas has also been valuable within the agency to communicate effectively to other members of the team like visual designers and developers.

Personas work because stakeholders find them simple to relate to, they are easy to remember and to share across multiple teams. You don’t need any specialist knowledge.

As stated by the NN/Group “a persona stands for a group of users with similar behavioural patterns, goals, motivations, and expectations; personas keep product-design decisions focused on user needs” and this is the reason why I find them to be a powerful tool to talk about the users.

When I ran stakeholder workshops for Rethink Mental Illness, I printed out the personas on A3 sheets and put them on the wall for everyone in the room to have a point of reference. It was great to see stakeholders to look around the room and refer to a specific persona’s needs to validate their point of view.

I am not saying that personas are a must-have in every design process, but I would definitely recommend them, especially when clients do not adopt a user-centred approach. If personas are not the right way to engage stakeholders that’s fine. You can always try other tools that can help you and the business to empathise with your users.

Last month, I attended the ‘Design for Leadership’ event in London, organised by Tech Circus. It was interesting to hear from the panel about the importance of having a flexible approach as a leader as well as in the processes that we use. I have found that there isn’t a one size fits all solution for research and design. Especially when you work in an agency and you are dealing with a lot of different clients, you need to be ready to tweak your process, listen to the business needs and find the best way to understand users.

So, in my experience personas are a great communication tool and they help me to drive a user-centred approach. Personas work best when clients are involved in their creation. When it’s clear what personas are being used for the project, everyone in the business, as well as designers and developers, can use them as a reference.