I sat down with a new client a few weeks back to discuss an upcoming project of ours. I was set to learn their hopes and dreams, to see what exactly they needed from us. They were super eager to discuss personas—they’d even done a ton of reading on them, and had done some initial discovery of their own to better understand their users. Awesome, right? I listened, nodded, got excited, and then finally asked how they intended to incorporate these personas into their internal design philosophy or system. Suddenly, blank stares.
This is not an uncommon problem. I’ll provide a quick caveat and say, I work almost exclusively with websites and web applications, with the occasional foray into virtual reality. And I’m at an agency, so the problem I encounter is specific, perhaps, to that experience. However, more often than not, user experience personas become functionally useless for my teams. Rather than being used for informing ongoing design decisions, they get stuffed into drawers or handed off to marketing teams, where they don’t meet said-marketers’ needs.
Even when I wind up working with the team to help them strategize how to effectively use or evangelize personas, they’ve still ended up in drawers by the time we’ve checked back in.
So why are these documents not useful for some teams? While I don’t have all the answers, I know I’m just really tired of spending many, many hours on creating things that wind up in drawers. So here are some of the problems I’ve noticed, and then I’ll end with an open question to you all; I know I don’t have the end-all, be-all opinion on these matters.
[Note: this topic came up for me again today because of a cool talk at the upcoming LavaCon in Portland, OR. The talk is A Gameful Approach to Creating Relevant Personas, and should be pretty sweet. If you’re interested in checking out LavaCon Portland November 5 – 8, check out their registration page and use UXBOOTH as a promo code to get $200 off. Yay! They’re our partners and we love them.]
Where confusion sets in
We’ve written about them in the past, but this causes a lot of confusion. To quote our own author, Jennifer Leigh Brown, there are two primary kinds of personas (and a few others you can read in her article):
As it turns out, many organizations just don’t have a need for personas to drive design decisions, because most of their design needs just aren’t that complex. I know many folks out there who are a bit more idealistic than I am might bristle on this—and I want to hear from them—but there comes a point where a team just needs to make a decision on where to invest time and resources. For smaller, leaner organizations, design teams might benefit a lot more from investing elsewhere, such as usability testing or accessibility reviews.
User personas are much less actionably useful for less complex products than, say, marketing persons that directly inform communication needs and potential impact.
They’re also not-at-all-cheap to develop; when teams realize this, you know what happens next? They fill in the persona’s blanks with assumptions, which makes them functionally useless. Well, maybe not completely useless, but the personas are now something else entirely—speculation.
A rollout problem
Even if a team has created the most useful, awesome personas, and the product has pretty complex design needs, there are still more hurdles. Most importantly, communication and rollout.
Any teams with stakeholders need to understand the importance of personas and user-centered design (and the time and cost they require), and that’s…well, it’s hard. Especially for non-tech-centric companies (though those are fewer and farther between these days). This means that a very dedicated and enthusiastic evangelist will need to “sell” the personas to everyone, not just design nerds.
Maybe for the big sexy products this isn’t a problem, but it sure is for the everyday Janes and Joes out there just trying to redesign their not-overly-complex websites. It’s not worth their time and limited resources to invest energy into something that will require such heavy lifting of stakeholder management.
So what’s my point?
Sometimes, user personas aren’t worth it for teams with less complex problems. And I’m certainly not the first to be writing about this, but it seems to be coming up more and more in my agency life, so I thought I’d get some reader input. What do you think? Are user personas always worth the time?