A Persona I Could Learn to Love

An image of a devil and an angel echidna on a business Echidna's shoulders.

There’s an old adage about how you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I’ve never been a fan of that term -- and not just because there’s a little more grey in my beard than the average person. The insinuation is that older people are set in their ways, unable to learn, and inflexible. My experience -- and maybe I’m just lucky by the people with whom I associate -- is that people with experience are interested in learning, but are more judicious in weighing new approaches and information against what they’ve done before.

It’s not that they don’t want to learn new tricks -- but, sometimes, new isn’t better. Or those tricks have been evaluated in the past and come up short. Old dogs have context, and context can have a dramatic impact on ideas -- it can either cut them down based on experience, or sharpen their edge and effectiveness. In that vein, new information can reframe old ideas in a more appropriate context, and change those old-dog views.

This is all a long-winded way to say I may be coming around on personas.

A little while ago Andrew discussed the power of personalization and echoed my sentiments on personas. In general, my experience with persona development have been an exercise in marketing puffery -- it’s a matter of creating a deliverable, but one that’s absent any actual use.

This week, I’ve been involved with a Nielsen/Norman Group UX training exercise and the topic of persona development came up. After yesterday’s class, the instructor and I talked about personas, I shared my thoughts.

In the end, for the most part, I still feel that personas aren’t overly valuable. But… if done well… they can be a valuable tool.

The problem is that they’re often used inappropriately.

Over the years, I’ve come across hundreds of personas both in marketing and development projects, and they’ve routinely been nothing more than elaborate stereotypes masking as insight. They’re formed, not through research, but through assumption. They are possibly effective as part of a broader campaign that focuses on superficial entry points for conversations, but often they’re misused to infer user intent, behaviour, and action.

But maybe I’m throwing out the baby with the bathwater..

My issue may not be with the persona, but rather how it’s created. As discussed this week, personas informed by long-term studies, longitudinal behaviours showing a representation of user behaviour, and iterative and validating research can create a persona that enables us to effectively map user behaviour to desired tasks and goals.

I still don’t care what TV show “Steve” likes to watch, but I do want to know what factors are motivating his purchasing behaviour, I want to know what type of technology he embraces so that I can align deliverables to meet those preferences, and I ultimately want to know what his goal is so that I can satisfy it.

But I only want to know that if there are multiple “Steve”s out there -- “Steve”s that have identified themselves through research, responses, and exhibited (and repeated) behaviour.

From there, I can identify a number of user stories and desired actions from which we can develop requirements -- requirements that likely apply to even secondary and tertiary users. That's the "Steve" I can use.

A persona that’s assumed and not informed; a persona that’s been developed internally and through siloed thinking; a persona that’s based on rigorous research and data, but rather spurious information and perpetuating stereotypes -- those are personas that I have no time for.

However, a persona that represents a vast majority (or plurality) of users? A group displaying repeated behaviours and shared motivations, presented to me through historical research and validation?

That’s a persona I can learn to love.

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