When Does A Persona Stop Being A Persona?

Jared Spool

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?

13 Responses to “When Does A Persona Stop Being A Persona?”

  1. Mark Notess Says:

    Such an important point–one that should be obvious to UX practitioners, but the creative writing route is seductive!

    One solution your your naming problem is to just call real personas “real personas” or “evidence-based” personas or something like that.

    I have an additional gripe about personas. Sometimes, even when they are data-based, they don’t add much beyond knowing that some people are more technical than others. In my experience, useful personas include details about task patterns and context that can inform detailed design. It’s nice to know people’s backgrounds, preferences, and hobbies, but I also need to know what they do, how they do it, and why.

  2. Jay Zipursky Says:

    If we all agree that research- or evidence-based personas are the goal, then I think any label that indicates a persona has some “creative” or unvalidated aspect is good enough. I happen to like Kim’s “provisional” label and plaster it as a watermark across any such persona I author. (I prefer “provisional” to “ad-hoc” because it hints there may be more research to come.)

    As professionals that “get it” I think the best we can do is question and challenge when presented with personas to figure out how they came to be and then suggest the appropriate action to move them in the right direction.

    Once the Persona Certification Organization (PCOrg – has a nice ring!) is up and running, we can standardize on names and labels. … and badges, of course!

  3. Ray Dahl Says:

    I like the idea of provisional persona. When I have created these in the past I have put silhouette or sketch in place of a photo of a user. I do this to reinforce the idea that our understanding of the user is incomplete. When we have enough data to support the persona as “real” a photo is used.

  4. Joshua Northcott Says:

    Jared, great post. I have ran into this question of creating “fictional” personas and was never really convinced that they were even a true persona that we could be confident in. In fact, I see it more often than the latter. To avoid the semantic issue, I believe they can still be called personas. With these tools, what you put into them is what you get out. So there will be much more valuable and accurate personas than others.
    I’d be curious to see your thoughts on this semantic issue pertaining to Usability Testing and how the value can be lost.

  5. AJ Kohn Says:

    This is a really important discussion because far too many use ‘personas’ improperly, or as you more generously put it, create a different type of persona.

    I’ve been part of a number of these experiences and the ‘personas’ essentially wind up being stereotypes, often infused with the bias or agenda of a person or department.

    These don’t really serve to reveal or guide the discussion or development of features but instead become weapons in debates and arguments. This ultimately devolves into people attacking the validity of the persona. From there, it’s a quick and slippery slope to writing off the personas entirely.

    In my opinion, using personas (the right way) is a very difficult task and more people get it wrong than right.

  6. Jake Says:

    Of course, as long you qualify, an ad-hoc or fictional persona is as worthy of the name as an evidence based persona. The right persona for the right job. If your goal is to humanize the user to the dev team or to create a common language within a large organization ad-hoc personas can be good enough. Something to iterate on.

  7. Marketing Day: December 16, 2011 Says:

    […] When Does A Persona Stop Being A Persona?, http://www.uie.com […]

  8. John Rowles Says:

    I’ve used both “assumption-based persona” and “assumptive persona”.

    “Assumptive” is an ugly-sounding, accusatory word which is kind of why I like it in this context.

    Before I reveal the silhouettes, I give an example of a real persona and explain what it is and how its used.

    The goal is to use assumption-based personas to introduce the business to the concept, and then to circle back and get them to do the real thing. I have one question about this tactic:

    Has it ever worked for anyone?

  9. Julia Says:

    I have found “provisional personas” to be particularly useful. Our context was a team of two UX designers on a website consolidation project. We used our provisional personas to make our stakeholders user-aware when making decisions about which content to keep and which to discard. We used website usage statistics to inform our decision regarding content that was popular, in spite of our clients’ expectations.

    Our client wanted to scrap 90% of the site content on a large infrastructure site, and the personas (along with some simple scenarios outlining how users may have hypothetically used the popular content) helped to make them aware the importance of some content in specific contexts. It didn’t work in all cases, but it did prevent them from removing plenty of high-frequented and useful content. It certainly helped in encouraging the client to think more like their users, and step out of their corporate mindset.

    We had a big internal debate about the usage of the term, “personas”. Our resolution was that it did need to be clear that they weren’t traditional personas, and I think we settled on calling them “fictional personas” at the time, although, I definitely prefer the term, “provisional personas” as I think it gives them slightly more credibility, whilst still distinguishing them from “traditional” personas.

  10. Michael Allenberg Says:

    I have been crafting “fictional” personae for years. I do not use them for every persona-based beginning to a project, BUT they can be a very useful tool! I have a wealth of life experiences to draw on, and I always base these “fictional caricatures” on someone or a mix of “someones” that I have encountered in my life.

    Having an almost total-recall memory for faces, personalities, and people I meet in general has become an integral part of my UX tool-kit. While nothing can replace actual user-based research and Q&A, it is not always applicable for every given project/situation. I would never discount the intuitive ability required to craft a working persona out of thin air on the fly!

  11. Jen McGinn Says:

    You make an excellent point. Recently, a colleague and I were asking the same question: how can we refer to the personas that exist in our organization already (before we joined the team), but which weren’t based on research? Of course we came up with some colorful terms, but settled quickly on “brainstormed personas”. Not only is it accurate — they were brainstormed, not based in research — but it’s a little more PC than “made up”, “fake”, “or other things I can’t type here. The term also doesn’t imply that we believe in them, as “provisional” might. The term “brainstormed personas” doesn’t make anyone feel like the personas /might/ need validating through data collection, but that they /require/ validation.

  12. Jay Zipursky Says:

    Was it intentional that “brainstormed personas” could be abbreviated BS personas? 🙂

    I think it’s important not to underplay a team’s made up personas (assuming they are including important aspects of the users – not fluff like the number of pets and favorite vacation spots). Not only do you risk throwing away useful information, but you risk alienating the teams you are helping.

    I suspect most of these made up personas aren’t created completely in a vacuum and the team has some exposure to users, even if its second hand.

    As a UX professional inheriting such personas, the first thing I would do is “validate” them internally and identify what was guesswork and what was based on fact. At that point, we’re back to “ad-hoc” or “provisional” again.

    The goal remains the same. We need to expose (in a good way!) the organization to real users, whether through persona development, usability testing, or other methods within the given time and budget constraints.

  13. Rob Gillham Says:

    I go with ‘Personas’ – for the researched, validated kind – and ‘Working hypothesis’ for the other, anecdotal, unvalidated ones. I have found these labels seem to conjure up the right kind of expectations internally. Refusing to allow unvalidated (but nonetheless potentially useful) theories about users to use the term ‘Personas’ is an important distinction.

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