Putting personas under the microscope

We recently came across a research study conducted by Frank Long at the National College of Art and Design that investigated the value of personas as a design tool. In his research paper, titled "Real or Imaginary: The effectiveness of using personas in product design," Long concludes:

The results showed that, through using personas, designs with superior usability characteristics were produced. They also indicate that using personas provides a significant advantage during the research and conceptualization stages of the design process.

I’m impressed by Long’s efforts to gather evidence to support the claims of persona fans like myself, and am not surprised by the positive outcomes attributed to the use of personas. But in the debate over personas’ usefulness, I’m not quite ready to spike the ball and call it game over just yet.

As we all know, skeptics of personas abound. I won’t be dedicating my life to converting the non-believers, but I hate to see designers dismiss a useful tool simply because its’ worth has not been adequately demonstrated to them. Frank Long’s research is a great start, but I suspect that more work is needed to deliver compelling evidence that will persuade the detractors.First, a common understanding of the craft of developing and using personas is needed. Like any tool, personas must be made and employed properly in order to yield the best results. To this end, the Long study highlights an interesting phenomenon: Depicting personas with a sketch rather than a photograph impacts their effectiveness. The sketched persona felt, well, sketchy - and the design work that followed suffered as a result:

Using illustrations instead of photographs of the persona would seem to reduce effectiveness. It can lead to selective consideration of the persona characteristics and can increase the risk of self-referential details being superimposed onto the persona. The study also reported a lower level of empathy towards the illustrated persona and a diminished ability among students to recall details about the persona after time.

Another major aspect of effective persona use that is often overlooked is the importance of giving personas a workout, rather than simply creating them and then setting them aside. While personas alone are useful in establishing a common understanding of who the users are, their true power is realized when they are put to work in scenarios. Scenarios describe how the persona will ideally interact with the new system or service in order to achieve his or her goals. In so doing, scenarios elicit key requirements, and serve as the first broad strokes of the design. Though it makes little mention of them, the Long study used scenarios in conjunction with personas, maximizing their benefit.

Further investigation into the usefulness of personas presents an exciting opportunity to elevate the persona debate from the slippery slopes of opinion to the terra firma of evidence. Subsequent studies would ideally be conducted outside of an academic setting, include a larger sample size, and avoid secondary investigations into materials that may cloud results. They should also continue to follow best practice approaches for persona development and use, such as depicting the personas with photographs rather than sketches, and putting personas through their paces in scenarios throughout the design process. Here at Cooper, we’re not particularly well-positioned to take on an impartial research study of the efficacy of our methods, but we welcome scrutiny from academics and practitioners alike, and hope to see more investigations that pick up where Mr. Long left off.


It's quite difficult to see why seasoned designers don't see personas as a tool to inform design decisions. Even at 37 signals they would have had to consider scenarios carefully; and if they hadn't been designing for their own problems then personas would have helped them solidify their research. Those that are anti-persona (and it's not just Jason) have had success without personas, so maybe they just don't see the need or value in them; but to those learning about translating field research into usable and useful design, they can be an invaluable.
David Rondeau
In my experience as a practitioner of Contextual Design, personas are not as useful for us, in helping to guide the design. Using our process, we get a really rich understanding, not just of the users, but of their actual work practice, the roles they play, the artifacts they use, and the impact of their physical environment. Because we have all this really rich data, we find that we don't really need personas to guide the design. This doesn't mean that personas aren't useful. If you aren't using the Contextual Design process and you are creating personas by gathering field data, then can be very valuable. I also doesn't mean that we don't use personas, we just use them for a different purpose. (And we can easily create personas because we already have rich user data.) Typically, we use them to bring to life, for the client, the key types of users. The client may also use the personas to help communicate the design recommendations internally within the company, or they may use the persona information to clarify the target demographics for product definition and marketing. If you want to read more about personas and Contextual Design, you can read this: http://incontextdesign.com/articles/personas-and-contextual-design/ Are other people also using personas as a way of communicating to clients or internal stakeholders? Are those personas different than the ones used to drive design? Should they have different information and different presentation since they are supporting a different intent? -dave David B. Rondeau Design Chair InContext Design ( http://www.incontextdesign.com ) http://twitter.com/dbrondeau
Dave Cronin
Dave R, Interesting comments. I suspect everyone's mileage may vary quite significantly with personas. Personas really just another tool, and as with any tool, the end product has a lot to do with the abilities of the craftsman. Where a skilled carpenter can use a hammer to build beautifully refined furniture, in my hands, everything tends to look like a bit ramshackle. And of course, there a Japanese carpenters who can build supremely elegant pieces without hammers or nails whatsoever. It's important to remember that personas aren't an end in themselves, but a way of taking all that rich insight developed through research and making it an actionable design and decision-making tool (by talking about personas engaged in scenarios, etc, etc.). I guess I've never really been able to get my head around how Contextual Design addresses that need. I'd love to hear a bit more about how your methods help during the design phases, and more specifically how all of the zillions of points of data gathered during research can be used to drive the creation of desirable user experiences.

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