Personas have become ubiquitous in many organisations, and are typically used as part of the digital development cycle and latterly transformation programs. Project Managers and interventionists come across this tool more frequently and since 2010 I have seen them used in six different public, private and third sector organisations. For some time I have wanted to do a little research and reflect upon what they are, what problem they were introduced to solve, understand the underlying theory, and understand any criticisms of them, and implications for better practice.
What are Personas?
Personas are a representation of a customer type [fictional], often with a photograph and a name, that tells a story about that character and describes a little about their life, motivations, goals, technology used, preferred channels, problems that they are facing and sometimes the brands they favour (below is an example).
Initially personas were used in User Experience (UX) design, although latterly their use has extended into many areas of business operations, from marketing and sales to transformation programs. The end use dictates what information is included. For example, what is included for marketing personas, is not necessarily needed for UX designers.
There are different types of persona (here are a handful):
Goal-directed personas: What does my typical user want to do with my product?
Role-based personas: Examination of the roles typically played, where the product will be used, purpose of role etc?
Engaging personas: Belief stories with vivid & realistic description of fictitious people produce involvement and insight.
Fictional Personas: The fictional persona relies upon assumptions based upon past interactions with the user base, and products to deliver a picture of what typical users look like.
What problem were they created to solve?
Personas were introduced by Alan Cooper in 1983, and are detailed in his book Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity (1999). Cooper identified that by going out into the field and interacting with many different users, to understand their problems and what they are trying to achieve, allows a series of types to be identified. He articulates that this helped designers solve a number of problems:
The first is to help designers to narrow-down their focus to a particular user type. Ideally Cooper suggests that ideal design should be for one user type (check out his luggage on wheels story in his book p. 126).
The second is to overcome design bias (so that designers do not add features or create things that do not matter to users).
‘A completely defined user persona is key to the suppression of any tendency for the developer to usurp or distort the user persona’s role. Long before a single line of code is written, a well-defined user persona becomes a remarkably effective tool for interaction design’ (Cooper, P. 129, 1999).
The third was articulated in a video from 2014 (created by Cascade SF). Cooper identifies that personas were meant to bring the actual customer into the room, and depersonalise decision-making within project spaces.
This video shows Cooper articulating how he intended personas to work in practice and what problems he wanted them to solve.
Variety and the theory of types
Some of the underlying theory for personas comes from the field of variation and variety attenuation. In particular from the systems field of cybernetics, drawing upon Ashby’s law of ‘requisite variety’ (1954) and extended later into the management field by Stafford Beer with his concept of ‘Variety attenuation’ (1974). In services, John Seddon’s concept of nominal value builds upon Ashby, Beer, and important thinking from Taguchi (Quality Loss Function, 1990) and combines them in useful ways when studying customer demand. Seddon’s concepts of value and failure demand is an important innovation (first used in 1980 but written about in 1992 in I Want you to Cheat – a book about targets).
Underlying theory – Stories and personification
Part of the attractiveness of personas relates to how an abstract group have been turned into a single human being (many personas come with photographs). There is plenty of research that suggests that people engage with humans more readily (e.g. Grudin, 2006). That personas also incorporate a story of a human life (albeit often an imaginary one) makes them appeal at an empathetic level (e.g. Quesenbery & Brooks, 2011). As Paul Zak has articulated, employees are more motivated by an organisation’s transcendent purpose, than it is by its transactional purpose (Zak, 2014).
Criticisms of personas
Law of the instrument – Scenarios as tools
One of the problems with much business change practice is leading with a ‘tools first’ mentality. Instead of spending time studying and getting knowledge, a tool is applied to any problem or situation. The psychologist Stephen Shorrock has indicated that by starting with tools, we constrain our thinking and narrow our focus in ways that are unsafe. This fits with the ‘Law of the Instrument’ identified by Maslow and expressed in his now famous saying ‘I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as is it were a nail’ (1966).
They are fictional
An important criticism of personas is that they are fictional representations of customer types. Whilst Cooper espoused that personas should be based upon field research with many users, in reality many companies create their personas based upon their experience and assumptions. This cuts out the cost and time associated with studying and learning whilst also jettisoning potentially important aspects of customer demand. Such assumptions lead to building and designing upon illusory sand. This reification (see Ison on social technologies, 2010) of abstract variety into singular personas can act to exclude important nuances, which can be missed as part of the design process.
It doesn’t necessarily create consensus or focus
Whilst Cooper identifies that personas were in part created to put the customer type in the room, and therefore give designers an edge when decisions were being made, in practice it often doesn’t work like that. Consensus-forming is actually much more difficult. In many hierarchical, functional organisations power is wielded top-down and within functional silos and what the senior leader in room says happens … happens. This is one of the reasons that small start-up companies sometimes have the edge in design as they have no hierarchy.
Removes the customer and losing the true potential for transformation
Perhaps the most important criticism is that by creating a fictional character, it is quite possible that this will remove the customer from a knowledge through study systemic view. As John Seddon asked in Beyond Command and Control (2019).
‘Do you think it makes sense to dream-up a customer and speculate how he or she might want to interact digitally with your organisation? How do personas help us understand what matters to customers?’ (Seddon J, p. 105).
Taking a field-based ‘study and learn’ view gives us a broader and deeper understanding of the what and why gives us more useful knowledge. It is worthwhile exploring this concept more deeply.
Coming at a problem from an IT first angle
This is the most critical argument against leading with personas. And it relates to Seddon’s question. The closer you get to understanding the customer’s purpose for doing something, and what matters to them in that delivery can radically alter the design of a system. Entire processes, IT systems can disappear to be replaced by better more focused services. In some services IT narrowed down to one screen. From this point of view then, personas are probably sub-optimisation.
Seddon argues that the only time IT should come into play is after a services has been redesigned. Otherwise you are building waste and failure that hard-wires this into the system. So even though Cooper wants to base his study in the field, his view is too narrow and IT led. The presumption is that it is better IT design, whereas the real prize is in a purpose-led redesign of the whole system.
Here is Justin Watts (Head of Systems Thinking) from Lloyds bank discussing their Vanguard Method digital transformation at a conference in 2016.
COOPER, A. (1999). [Kindle] The inmates are running the asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. Indianapolis, IN, Sams.
Grudin, J. (2006). [Kindle] Why personas work: The psychological evidence. The Persona Lifecycle, 642–663.
Quesenbery, W., & Brooks, K. (2011). [Kindle] Storytelling for user experience: Crafting stories for better design. Rosenfeld Media
Seddon, J. (1992), I Want You to Cheat!: The Unreasonable Guide to Service and Quality in Organisations, Vanguard Consulting Ltd, Buckingham.
Seddon, J. (2019), Beyond Command and Control, Vanguard Consulting Ltd, Buckingham.
Zak, P. (2014). Why Your Brain loves Good Story Telling, in Harvard Business Review, viewed online 6th June 2021 <Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling >
Practitioner and community sites visited
Blomkvist, S., (2002), Persona – an overview, Researchgate, Paper viewed 6th June 2021, <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242401053_Persona_-_an_overview_Extract_from_the_paper_The_User_as_a_personalit… >
Mckeen, J, The Pitfalls of Personas and Advantages of Jobs to Be Done, UX Matters, viewed 05th June 2021, <https://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2019/02/the-pitfalls-of-personas-and-advantages-of-jobs-to-be-done.php>
Owens, S, 2017, Design Personas vs Marketing Personas: They. Are. Different!, The UX blog, viewed 6th June 2021, <https://medium.theuxblog.com/design-personas-vs-marketing-personas-they-are-different-2724992acc78>
Salminen, J, 2020, Theory of Personas: What has Been Written About the Psychological Relationship Between Personas and Their Users?, The Persona Blog, viewed 4th June 2021, <Theory of Personas: What Has Been Written About the Psychological Relationship Between Personas and Their Users? – The P… >
Shorrock, S, 2013, Personas a simple introduction, Humanistic Systems, viewed 5th June 2021, <Maslow’s hammer: How tools bias attention and straightjacket thinking – Humanistic Systems >