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.