User personas are useless and wasteful, just have everyone talk to real customers instead

Here’s a truth we need to accept: designers for the most part love personas – but they are not helpful. Not in the least. I’ve never found them that useful in my 10+ years of design work. Every company has had them. I even created some for a small home goods business I co-founded with my wife. I created personas for our customers and taped them to the wall. 6 months later I threw them away. I hadn’t used them even once. Here’s why personas aren’t useful.

The role of personas

In an ideal world, personas help us understand our users. This leads to empathy (so the reasoning goes). Empathic designers make products more suited to solve people’s problems. Personas, then, are a tool designed to influence and change the behavior of people designing products. Except, personas completely fail at this task.

Why personas fail

If you’ve studied anything about influence, then you know how difficult it can be to change a person’s behavior. You also know that words are the least effective form of influence. Let’s think about what a persona is. It’s literally a sheet of paper, a PDF or a web document that designers look over before they start their work. Has this approach ever changed behavior, really? Has passive information consumption truly shifted anyone’s behavior?

Given the amount of time it takes to research and create a persona, there’s really only person that the persona helps – the person doing the research. That’s because often times this requires speaking to users directly. And this, it turns out, is an incredibly useful way to change behavior.

Why only the researcher benefits

First-hand experience turns out to be an excellent way to modify human behavior. Jared Spool has a great article about the most effective way to increase usability in a company’s interfaces. He says that the best way that he has seem is to have people speak directly with customers.

Instead of personas, conversations

Instead of taking the time and expense to create a persona, instead have each and every designer go off and speak to a customer directly. On a big team, would this approach scale? Certainly not every person would speak to the same user, and they might have even conflicting information about needs. I actually think this is OK. Personas have the illusion of being singular, solid and accurate – but they are none of those things. They are full of embedded assumptions that the reader has no visibility into. They are also vague summaries of real customer needs. At best they are a scan-once and forget it document.

If we really want to change behavior to make designers more empathetic with our customers, then we need to give our people first-hand experience with customers. Conversations are a great start to truly developing empathy (and having better designs).

How to make sure that everyone on the team speaks to customers

Instead of spending the time to create personas, instead create a small training program that will make it easy for designers to contact customers. Here’s what you need:

  • A list of customers with email contacts who are willing to speak with designers about their needs
  • A culture of permission so the designer feels OK contacting the customer – work with account managers if necessary
  • Culture of accountability – to make sure the designers actually follows through and speaks to the customer
  • Immediate action – have new designers do this first thing
  • Social pressure – have existing designers work with new designers to get this done. Group acceptance is a powerful lever

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *