December 15th, 2011
Personas are a powerful tool in the UX toolbox. When done well, they rally the team around a small, specific set of archetypal users. Each team member becomes closely familiar with each of the personas, then can create designs that closely match those persona’s needs.
In our research on personas, we’ve found this works best when the personas are based on real people doing real things. We regularly take teams into the field to meet their users and watch them interact in their own environments. We then capture the interesting bits to assemble our personas. We know we’ve done a great job when we can point to any element of the persona description and talk about the different real users we observed, doing and saying the same things.
What happens when we can’t do the research with the real users? Tamara Adlin does something she calls Ad-Hoc Personas, where the team gathers all the information they already know without doing any new research. Kim Goodwin does something similar that she calls Provisional Personas.
Because we often already know a lot about the people we’ve been selling our product to and supporting, we can build a decent picture of what they are like and what they need. If we combine different viewpoints, like those from sales, training, and support, it’s possible to surface a lot of interesting details to design with.
However, these aren’t as rich as the fully-researched personas we started with. It’s hard to separate out the mythology that forms around users from the reality. The advantage of going into the field is we can see where that mythology breaks down.
It’s possible we could go even farther away from the research by creating personas that are complete fiction. The team could ask, “What do imagine users might be like?” and “What do we think those users might do?” I guess it’s possible personas crafted from complete fiction like this can inspire the team to innovation, but it’s likely not better than self design, which would at a minimum have checks and balances of contact with someone using it.
The “persona purists” argue that completely fictional personas aren’t real personas at all. Their argument is that when we dilute the research component that goes behind the persona, we take risks that a design built from those personas won’t fit the needs of real users as well.
At UIE, we’ve seen multiple teams go down this fictional road, then end up with descriptions that nobody believed in. The team didn’t rally around it and the personas turned out to be a wasted effort. Because they were labeled “personas”, it was impossible to get those teams to buy into a subsequent well-researched persona project. They were completely turned off by the idea of personas and were against any future investment in them.
Should we come up with a different name for those things we create from pure fiction, like “user caricatures” or “fictional users”? (When I asked Kim Goodwin if she had a name for completely fictional personas, she called them “creative writing class exercise.” That sums it up pretty well, I think.) Should we go to efforts to explain that things without research aren’t personas?
What about the Ad-hoc Personas or Provisional Personas? Should we stop calling them personas too?
We don’t want personas to become diluted so much that the term doesn’t have meaning. How do we protect the value of these tools without getting lost in semantic mumbo-jumbo?Tweet