November 14th, 2007
There’s been a lot of discussion lately on the Interwebs about how personas are a useless tool. 37Signals’ Jason Fried recently wrote:
We don’t use personas. We use ourselves. I believe personas lead to a false sense of understanding at the deepest, most critical levels.
Every product we build is a product we build for ourselves to solve our own problems. We recognize our problems aren’t unique. In fact, our problems are probably a lot like your problems. So we bundle up the solutions to our problems in the form of web-based software and offer them for sale.
We recognize not everyone shares our problems, our point of view, or our opinions, but that verdict’s the same if you use personas. Making decisions based on real opinions trumps making decisions based on imaginary opinions.
I’ve never been a big believer in personas. They’re artificial, abstract, and fictitious. I don’t think you can build a great product for a person that doesn’t exist.
There was a lot of discussion on Jason’s blog, with many sentiments similar to this one from Mimo:
I never heard of Personas before. Now I read it on wikipedia. The idea sounds interesting. But I think at the end of the day it is crap. The product is always shaped by two things. YOUR experience (your present ego and YOUR idea (your future ego).
So, to add into the fray, here’s my thoughts on using personas:
It takes virtually no skill to build something crappy
No one is going to make you use personas. If you create a design without using personas, I’ll promise you the sun will continue to rise on schedule, without variation. The universe will remain intact.
However, how do you know you’re actually meeting the needs of your users? After all, that is why you were designing in the first place, right?
Some products, like the tools built by 37Signals, don’t need personas. Not because the folks at 37Signals have any special powers, but because they themselves are the personas they want to build for. They build tools they like to use themselves. For them, that will work great.
Not all teams have that luxury. A hospital IT team, building software systems used by critical care nurses in the hospital’s pediatric intensitve care unit, are not building tools they will use themselves. They are building tools used by others whose education, experience, goals, contexts, and tasks are extremely different.
A well-built, robust persona set can help educate the IT design team on what it’s like to be a critical care pediatric ICU nurse and the things they need to deal with. This information will inform their designs. And good personas help inform the design process.
Oh My God! They’re Made of People!
In his post, Jason says:
Personas don’t talk back. Personas can’t answer questions. Personas don’t have opinions. Personas can’t tell you when something just doesn’t feel right. Personas can’t tell you when a sentence doesn’t make sense. Personas don’t get frustrated. Personas aren’t pressed for time. Personas aren’t moody. Personas can’t click things. Personas can’t make mistakes. Personas can’t make value judgements. Personas don’t use products. Personas aren’t real.
People talk back. People answer questions. People have opinions. People can tell you when something just doesn’t feel right. People can tell you when a sentence doesn’t make sense. People get frustrated. People are pressed for time. People are moody. People click things. People make mistakes. People make value judgements. People use products. People are real.
It’s clear that Jason hasn’t used robust personas, because, when designed well, they do all these things. Jason hasn’t had the Soylent Green moment to realize that well-designed and researched personas are made of real people — real people who you can ask questions of, observe their frustrations, and discover their true goals.
I can see where Jason’s coming from. Recently we conducted a study of several dozen organizations who claimed to use personas. Less than 5% actually conducted field research to inform their personas. The remaining 95% just made up the descriptions from internal guesswork.
If you’re just going to guess on the personas, why bother? Just design for yourself, like the 37Signals team does.
However, when you do the field studies, you create relationships with the people in your research. You can return to those people and ask them questions. You can learn about the things they do.
The persona becomes a package for containing what you’ve learned from your field research. A package that is transportable to everyone on the team, so they can have the same benefits of knowing the users as you have.
Once you have well-designed, robust personas, you can take advantage of the benefits that come from them:
- Preventing Grounding
- Using the Oral Tradition
- Role Playing
In our research, teams that utilize robust personas find they create better designs, especially for things they wouldn’t normally use themselves.
I’m going to talk in great length today about building robust personas in our latest virtual seminar. See the description for more information. (It’s available live today and there’s still plenty of room. There will be a recording available shortly.)Tweet