I had the opportunity to attend the 2008 EPIC conference in Copenhagen, Denmark last October. A hot topic there was the use of “Personas” in usability research, with the idea that it was an effective and quick way to communicate the results of the research to the client. Personas are fictional characters developed as a representative of the research subjects as a whole in order to identify the characteristics/patterns of the subjects and as a way to “get to know” the company’s “typical” customer on a more intimate level so that the company may make better operational decisions to fit the majority of their customer’s needs and wants.

This was a somewhat controversial item because, in my group at least, half of the anthropologists disagreed with the effectiveness of a personas. The argument was that personas are just characters, and although they are developed from real anthropological research, they are still fictional. Those who supported this viewpoint suggested that the actual research data should be reported to the companies in lieu of persona (confidentiality protected of course). After all, why should someone make up a fictional person when real living people had been studied and could serve as [more valid] representatives? They believed that the clients should view the data of the real consumers in order to get the most effective results.

I certainly understood the viewpoint of those anthropologists that supported presenting the actual data rather than a representative character, however, I personally support the viewpoint of the companies/researchers that use personas. I’ve heard, and although I have no first-hand experience with clients consulting with me for usability research, and from the explanations provided from the Copenhagen research companies I visited, I believe that personas are an important and effective mode of communication of the data from the researcher to the client. The reason I take this stance is that companies, and more importantly the executives with the ability to commission such research, usually have absolutely no time, or often desire, to read some long drawn report of findings or statistics. This is why they hire consultants to do the research so that they may gain the intimate understanding of their customers without having to expend their non-existent time researching it themselves. There are critical pieces of that data that they do need to take the time to review and I’m not saying they need not receive a full report of the research results, however, having a persona allows them to “get the point”, so to speak, of who exactly their typical target customer is and what their needs and frustrations are, in a very brief amount of time. And I believe the reality is that many of the executives will not read the full research reports because of time, disinterest, or other factors and therefore making the efforts of the whole project useless because without implementation it becomes only interesting [but operationally ineffective] information. As an Office Manager for a non-profit organization, I certainly understand, from experience, the lack of time available to do this research, even though it would significantly impact the quality of the operations or client services. Furthermore, personas are an easy tool to communicate research results to employees.

As a side note, the EPIC participants were able to visit multiple that do usability/business research projects. Copenhagen has many of them and they are highly respected. The ones I visited did projects for the Denmark hospital system, police force, and a variety of other organizations. There was also a wide variety of company types/projects that these companies were hired to do research for. That says to me there is great hope for the future of this type of research.

7 thoughts on “Personas

  1. Data point: Use of personas in ad agency presentations has spread to Japan. We began translating presentations using this technique this year. What Jennifer says here about the use of personas to help clients get the point is, based on our experience, completely accurate. If I were to add a couple of thoughts, one would be the advice I received from the Creative Director who hired me to work for a large Japanese agency; half the work in a presentation is providing the person you present to with a story that he can tell his bosses, when you’re not around to help him. Personas, it seems to me, make this much easier. Another would be that personas help to break through the logic of marketing research, which is the only way to achieve genuine innovation. If the report says, for example, “Single women aged 25-29…” it is difficult to escape the stereotypes that drive reception of what is being said. If you can say, “Let’s look at Keiko, who is now 28. She works in a bank and lives with her parents in Denen-chofu [an upscale suburb, like Westchester or White Plains]. She’s graduated from Shibuya [where teens hang out] and prefers to do her drinking in Akasaka [upscale, sophisticated, long history as a place for successful people to see and be seen],” the associations are much richer and more likely to stimulate productive conversation.

  2. Jennifer,
    I find two things interesting in your review of personas. I’m also in your and John’s camp in relation to the power of personas. While providing the research and documenting the details is important it is those that can synthesize it into action that make doing the research valuable in the first place. Stories / personas make this easy. The findings of x studies may also be effectively consolidated. As more of a futurist I know being able to tell a story from the future is important. Yet without a basis in research it will have no credibility. Scenarios are just stories. We test or windtunnel our ideas against those stories. Then we hope to make better decisions.

    The second part of your observation about hiring consultants to do detailed studies I find more troubling although I know it happens all the time. If the customer won’t go into the field, or doesn’t have a curiosity or a fascination with what is to be studied it won’t matter what form the report takes or how it is talked about. I personally don’t accept time as an excuse here. If I’m the client I’d expect to insure that the research challenges what I know and my mental models. I may have even set it up to challenge these models. I know of few project that you can just then assign and get the real value out of.

    Maybe that’s why innovation fails to happen in these larger organizations. There’s no curiosity, no facination and little questioning. Thank goodness we might still get a good story out of it.

  3. Just an added note to clarify — many of the companies did go into the field with the researchers. However, it was not a requirement and of course, some did not. I do agree with your point regarding innovation in larger organizations.

  4. Most clients form a strategic direction for their business based on classic economic models (PESTE, SWOT, Boston Matrix, 4 Ps) but these don’t provide any insight into the realities of human behaviour.

    The persona, when combined with observed artifacts such as photos, video and user journeys, provokes insights because clients can witness the accumulated behaviours of irrational, emotional human beings.

    Clients become the “perceiver” as they leverage their own knowledge to solve problems that their customers didn’t even realise they had… hence you inspire thinking that accomodates human shaped behaviours, rather than a flat rational logic.

    Personas are a great tool to focus clients on the behavioural economics helping gather human emotion, social and cognitive patterns.

    Clients may know where to find the customers, its behavioural economics that uncovers the insights into what inspires customers to consume… Behavioural economics needs a very specific target – that target is the persona.

  5. Any discussion of Personas that fails to mention their role in design misses the mark entirely. Personas do encapsulate research and communicate it effectively, they transform data into information. But their role thereafter is not to stand as a proxy for the data, or even as a principle means of communicating about market demographics, they are a simplified model intended to serve as the target user for a design team. That’s all they were ever intended to be.

    To read about the origins of personas in UxD, go to the source – Alan Cooper – who introduced the technique to most people through his book “The Inmates are Running the Asylum”. In this article, he recalls how he developed the technique:

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