UIEtips: Five Factors for Successful Persona Projects

Jared Spool

July 6th, 2011

Personas are one of the most controversial tools in the professional UX toolbox. People either swear by them or swear at them. When they work, they are awesome, but when they fail, well, they fail gloriously.

For the past few years, we’ve been researching why so many persona projects have such dismal results. We discovered there are basic factors that are critical for a project’s success, yet most teams ignored them.

In today’s UIEtips, I discuss five of these factors. We look at the role of research, who should be involved in the personas, and other essentials that differentiates between a successful persona project and a failed one. I’m sure you’ll find it helpful for planning your projects.

Read the article: Five Factors for Successful Persona Projects

While I’m on the subject of UX techniques, I’m really looking forward to Cennydd Bowles’ upcoming UIE Virtual Seminar on UX Design when Time, Money, and Support is Limited. Cennydd is a kick-ass presenter and his book, Undercover User Experience Design, is a brand new classic. Find out more about the seminar.

Have you tried to use personas in your projects? What have you found to be the keys to your project’s success (or the reason for your project’s demise)? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.

3 Responses to “UIEtips: Five Factors for Successful Persona Projects”

  1. Eirik Fatland Says:

    Is it possible that these five strategies are symptoms of a cure, rather than the cure itself? I’ve used personas in a few projects, In some they helped immensely to resolve design problems later in the project. In others, they did nothing beyond the thinking and focus involved in creating them. I recognized the former in Alan Coopers story of the origin of personas:

    “As I walked, I would engage myself in a dialogue, play-acting a project manager, loosely based on Kathy, requesting functions and behavior from my program. I often found myself deep in those dialogues, speaking aloud, and gesturing with my arms. Some of the golfers were taken aback by my unexpected presence and unusual behavior, but that didn’t bother me because I found that this play-acting technique was remarkably effective for cutting through complex design questions of functionality and interaction, allowing me to clearly see what was necessary and unnecessary and, more importantly, to differentiate between what was used frequently and what was needed only infrequently. “

    The kind of imaginative play-acting Cooper describes will be made easier by a designer or team following some of the strategies outlined in the article (strategies #1, #3 and #4). But it might also be facilitated in other ways, not the least by a certain attitude on the part of the designer. I suspect the problem with treating personas as exercises of well-informed make-believe (rather than of formalized research, documentation and project practices) is that it makes the whole IxD practice seem more “fluffy”. Not a winner in the boardroom.

    That being said, personas have other functions than helping UX designers improve and user-centre their designs. I’ve seen persona creation workshops that were not grounded in research and didn’t contribute much to the design, but that DID establish common ground between designers and other stakeholders, and a user-centred focus for the whole project. Strategy #2 seems to adress this kind of process, and it might be treated as a different kind of beast than personas-as-design-tool.

  2. Nancy Shepard Says:

    I agree with the tips posted, but I think a much more important question should be, “Are personas the right research deliverable to choose for your objectives?” I have found that companies will try to develop personas instead of doing, say, good product market research. Or they will develop multiple personas when the end users are much too similar. Personas work best when there are significant differences in user experience and needs, for example, novice vs. expert or home vs. office user. My most successful use of personas happened with consumer products where the users could be quite different. Companies have asked me to do customer research and want the result to be a set of personas, when what they really needed was the deeper, more specific information that I’ve done with a series of “customer profiles” giving them much more actionable data than a generalized persona does. I think it’s important to remember that a set of personas is a deliverable or output, not a method. The method is in the way you do the customer research whether that be customer visits or phone interviews or observations. This research produces a lot of rich data that can be used in a variety of ways, personas being only one of them.

  3. Hartmut beil Says:

    I experienced Marketing using our Personas for planning their strategies.
    It was due the fact that we based them on real data and maded them very broad in approach.
    Other Persona creations had not been received that well, albeit the project was huge.
    That time the Personas were built on assumptions and personal believes of a group.
    Not only are assumptions and believes hard to share, it just has no foundation.

    As a third I noticed the absurd try to create Personas based on the assumption of the future usage of your product. E.g. A Persona for a future I-Phone App.

    In my expereience Personans are over rated and can only add to the design process if carefully presented to the stake holders.

    The presentation is key here and it has to be clear that all your assumptions are backed by real data.

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