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The good, the bad, and the contextualized nuance of creating great design personas.
Andy hears a lot of people complain about personas. But many of them are complaining about bad experiences with personas that weren’t meant for UX or design in the first place. Many teams get stuck using inherited personas, often from marketing departments. This means they’re using a tool that was created for a totally different use case, and getting bad results because of it.
In UX and product design, design personas are the best tool for the job. Creating and using design personas is a different process than creating and using personas for other parts of the business.
Marketing personas help marketing teams understand who buyers are, where they buy, and how to craft marketing messaging for them. Design personas help designers, researchers, and product people get back to the user’s mindset when creating new solutions, features, or products. They tend to focus more on behaviors and context than demographics and other static attributes of a target audience.
For Andy, the point of personas in the first place is to “breathe life into complicated research data.” Engaging teams with research data is a lot like telling a great story. Personas, for some teams, can help build the characters of that story.
Of course, if you’re boiling down all your complicated research to personas, you may be oversimplifying. Personas are a part of the larger research story, and can and should be combined with other assets over time to tell a great story.
According to Andy, great design personas outline the context behind decision making, the approaches people may take to solve problems, and the scenarios they may find themselves in.
While personas can be a great tool for some teams, they may not work for others. Personas are one piece in a team’s unique and nuanced toolkit. Some teams may find them absolutely integral to building awesome user-centered stuff, while others may do just fine without them.
What’s important is that you and your team are keeping users at the center of everything you do. If personas help you do that, build great personas, and if something else helps you get there, go for that!
Andy Budd is the co-founder of Clearleft, an agency that helps design leaders & hosts the UX London conference. He writes down some of his thoughts about UX and design on his blog, and is a big fan of nuance.
Erin: Welcome back to Awkward Silences, everybody. Today we are here with Andy Budd. He is the co founder and chairman of Clearleft, and he spends a lot of time these days curating their conferences. He has a lot of experience in the UX industry, and we are very excited to have him here today to talk about personas. The good, the bad, the ugly, and especially the contextualized nuance around when to use them or not. So, thanks so much for being here with us, Andy.
Andy: It's my pleasure.
Erin: And JH is here as well.
JH: Yeah, I think I'm a big believer of context and nuance get lost in a lot of conversations, and it seems like Andy might feel similarly. So I'm excited to see where this goes.
Erin: So let's start with, so personas, they're something that a lot of people use, are familiar with somewhat, right, across both UX, design, marketing and other disciplines. And, as happens on Twitter and the interwebs, people like to knock on on this tool. But, you're arguing that that isn't always the best thing for the discipline. So tell us a little bit about how you got to that perspective.
Andy: Yeah. I mean I want to say, first off, that I'm not necessarily a huge fan of personas, either. You know, they are a tool, much like a hammer or a chisel, and yeah, if I was a carpenter I probably wouldn't be as huge fan of a hammer as a chisel as well, because at the end of the day it's what you do with them that counts. So I don't want your audience to think that I am some kind of persona fanboy or persona apologist.
Andy: I just see these things as tools and it's really useful to understand how to use things well, how to use things badly and to understand when you should and you shouldn't use things. And I think weirdly we get into these cyclic conversations where someone will make some broad statements saying that x is always bad and always terrible and somebody else will come back and say x is always good.
Andy: And it just feels like, slightly like school yard kind of arguments. And it seems to be more about the people having the conversations positioning themselves in the mind of an audience, rather than actually trying to help educate people and get to the bottom of when and where you shouldn't use the tool. I think personas for some reason get a really bad reputation. And I think the reason they get really bad reputation is because people don't actually understand how they work. Generally, in my experience, a lot of people that are arguing against personas, first off, mix up design personas with marketing personas and that's really common.
Andy: It, particularly if you're working in a more traditional business and you've got a big marketing team and they've gone out and done a bunch of demographic research and have come back with a whole bunch of marketing personas that are really intended to give the marketing team an understanding of purchasing patterns and where those people can see media.
Andy: And so you're getting these really, slightly fantastical personas that say, this person's married and here's a picture and this is where they shop and this is their age and these are their interests, et cetera, et cetera. And I think to designers, these things can often feel quite hollow. And, I would agree that if you are a designer, inheriting and using a marketing persona can often be, less than useful.
Andy: But that's because they've not been designed with a design audience in mind. They've have been designed with a bunch of marketers who are trying to figure out where they should place their ad spend or whether they should do online on this port or this magazine, et cetera, et cetera. So I think the first tool or tip or whatever, it's just make sure you're using the right things. If you're going to critique a tool like a persona, make sure that you're critiquing design personas and not marketing personas. And I think that's the first common misstep that people make.
Erin: So, what is a good design persona? If a marketing persona is sort of, Mary Sue is 45 and has whatever degree and goes shopping at these places, what is a good or an effective design persona look like?
Andy: Okay, well, the first thing I think is worth understanding what the purpose of a design persona is. And I think the primary purpose for me is breathing life into what is often quite large amounts of complicated research data. So, ideally, you'd have a research or a research team. They will have gone out, they would have interviewed a bunch of people, they maybe have mixed up that qualitative research with some quantitative research. They may have gone out and done a survey and what they are ideally looking for, I guess, behaviors. What are the problems these people are trying to solve, how do they approach solving those and what are the scenarios in which they try and solve those problems?
Andy: And then because you've got a huge amount of data, you could just dump that data in a very, very long spreadsheet or Word document or PowerPoint file to all the people involved in the design process and expect them to draw key insights from that document. And that's perfectly, perfectly possible. And if you have a small research team, you might not need to do that because you might have been involved in the research yourself. However, if the research has been done by a third party, I think personas are really good way at presenting one facet of the research.
Andy: Now again, one of the other problems I think that is maybe misattributed to personas themselves is this belief that it's the only way to present or interrogate research. And if all of your research is boiled down into a persona and you don't have the extra data lying around, then again these things might seem a little bit hollow. But if you see it as a facet or as just one way of presenting complicated information. And one of the things you tend to find is personas, we're all built as humans to understand stories.
Andy: Storytelling is a unique part of our, I guess the human condition. And characters play an important part in stories. And so it's really, really quick for us to remember characters, to identify with them, much, much more than it is to remember what, interview number 50 of 70. And so personas are really kind of a short hand for the research, but built in a way that creates some memorable character. The real value of the persona is in these scenarios and the behaviors and the research insights that are built with it. So again, if you were given a persona and all it has is demographic information and nothing else, it's probably worthless and it's very much likely driven either by junior designers or maybe some marketing research.
Andy: If you're looking at really good design personas, then they would outline the context in which decisions are being made, the kind of approaches that these different people might choose to solve those problems and the scenarios that they find themselves in. And it's those scenarios which are really helpful. Now again, one of the negative comments against personas is, "Well, yes, but humans are complicated and people come from all different kinds of backgrounds and have all different kinds of problems. And boiling these things down into archetypes, you're going to miss some people or some groups or some activities." And yes, that is true. But again, understanding the weaknesses of a tool allows you to work around them. And the alternative to that is just seeing everybody as a homogenous user.
Andy: And I think this is the real challenge that personas are trying to address. In a lot of companies, there is no nuance around different kinds of users. And so you have these opinion battles around the table that the MD thinks our users behave like this. And often it's the way the MD behaves. Or the finance director says, "I think they behave like this." Because that's how the finance director behaves. And the head of marketing says, so you get these opinion battles. And so I think one of the benefits from having personas is it segments out what is often the case of one homogenous mass into slightly smaller, probably still homogenous but with slightly more nuance. So, I would prefer to have six or eight more subtle descriptions of a customer than one single one that immutable and so, so messy and all encompassing that it has almost no value.
JH: To jump back for a second, I feel like this is almost representative of why it's hard to have the nuance debate, right? Like, on Twitter, people love to jump in and say, personas are great, personas suck, and people take the polarizing sides and that's kind of the tip of the iceberg.
JH: But when you actually start pulling back the layer on personas like you just did for us, there's a lot of nuance there, right? There's a lot of context in terms of how you create them. Are we talking design or marketing personas? How are they used within the organization? And all of that. And it's just like the richness, it took us a handful of minutes just to get through that baseline.
JH: And is that what holds it back from being a more substantial discussion? Like how do we get around the fact that it's kind of like there's this tip of the iceberg where you have the name of the tool. And then there's all of this meat kind of buried underneath that's hard to get into when you do have these conversations.
Andy: So, first of all, I think we're in a time of rising popularism and I think that's not only in the design world, but in the political world as well. And I think popularist arguments of "This is always good or this is always bad," actually generate a lot of heat and a lot of energy.
Andy: And sometimes the people that having these always good, always bad conversations, I think when you talk to them, privately over coffee or a pint or whatever, actually see the nuance. But there's an element of wanting to whip up some kind of fervor. Maybe to raise their own profile or maybe to sell their book or their consulting work or they're looking for that attractive speaker slot and they know that being slightly contentious will get them there. And so I think we need to realize that there's a level of popularism which maybe doesn't actually always reflect the deeper beliefs of the individuals that are having these conversations.
JH: That's fair. I think the optimist in me, I guess, is just that the more complex a topic or something is, I think the easier it lends itself to the shorter reductive positions. Whereas things that are simpler, like you mentioned tools in the beginning, right? And something like a hammer, it's pretty simple, right? If I say "Eight ounce hammers are no good." And someone else is like, "Well, a 16 ounce hammer is better." Like, we're talking about it with a little bit more nuance, but it's very simple to do.
JH: Or if I say something like, using the tool in the wrong context of, "This hammer sucks at sweeping my floor." People are able to understand the concept, really, the context of my usage really, really quickly and point out where it's maybe wrong. And it feels really hard to do that type of additional layer of detail on more complex topics like personas or design tools.
Andy: I mean, I think, again, I think there's a few things going on here. So you know, I'm not one that somebody who is for having a formal education or certification in the design industry. So, I don't want to jump onto that argument. But I do think that, in some context, the barrier to entry to be a designer is relatively low. And I think a lot of people who have had exposure to personas maybe have had exposure to bad personas, maybe are not aware of the differences between marketing personas and design personas.
Andy: Or more frequently, have learned personas by reading a couple of fairly lightweight articles and have quickly formed opinions about the validity of this tool based on what is often relatively low information. I'm sure you've heard of this idea of the Dunning-Kruger curve. And this curve is this idea that you can get to quite a high level of certainty about your own opinions with actually a very, very low amount of knowledge and suddenly you get all these people that are novices at a thing thinking they were amazing at something. But it's only over time. Once you start learning about all the things you don't know, you actually realize that any topic is much, much bigger. And that's when you get the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect with this kind of sense of Imposter Syndrome. You've been doing something for two or three years and you think you know everything, you've been doing it for 10 years and you realize actually you know nothing.
Andy: The other thing which I think is really interesting is, ultimately, at the end of the day, a persona is like a postcard from your research, which is like the holiday. And so ultimately, the persona is a memory, is an aide-memoire of the experience you and your team had gathering the research. And it's a facet of that. And I think a lot of people look at the persona as a postcard and go, "Well, I didn't feel relaxed after looking at this postcard." Because they haven't gone on holiday themselves.
Andy: So, I think sometimes you have to go on the holiday and once you've gone on the holiday, once you've absorbed all this information, the persona becomes a really, really useful shortcut for you in sparking those memories of that wonderful holiday or the insights that you gained from the research that you did. And so again, just seeing a badly written persona online and going, "Oh, well, we know that's completely useless," is, yeah, is like expecting some sense of relaxation from looking at somebody else's travel, like photos.
Erin: You talk about personas as being valuable in an organization as a communication tool. And when you talk about the postcard, I think about that, if I'm seeing this postcard and I wasn't part of the research, right, but I am someone within the organization who could benefit from this persona artifact, right, that came out of that research. How do you then make the persona, the postcard, useful to people who maybe weren't super close to the process of developing it as a communication aid?
Andy: I mean again, it's a great question. I think the answer is that different parts of the organization need different levels of depth to understand the problem. And if you are the designer, you probably are the one making most of the design decisions. And so you need to have the tie from the persona to the insights and the research.
Andy: Now, if you are the product manager, you maybe don't need to have gone on the research, but you probably need to have read the report and you need to understand how the persona relates to the report. If you are the owner of the business that you're dealing with, as long as you have trust in the product owner and the designers, you probably only maybe need to consume the persona. But, you consume it by having the research presented to you and having the persona being the artifact.
Andy: But again, I think personas can become problematic if the people who are inheriting them don't have that nuance of the research and are now making fundamental business decisions based on just the words written on that document. It's probably still going to be a better decision than having no information at all. But again, this is why you have designers there to guide and craft the conversation.
Andy: So, I think personas need to be owned. I think they need someone to look after them. And I don't think they're just kind of like wild animals that you let out into the organization to run wild and free and let everybody just do with them what they will. Because then, that nuance and that tie to the research sort of goes missing.
JH: Alright, quick awkward interruption here. It's fun to talk about user research, but you know what's really fun is doing user research and we want to help you with that.
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JH: We all know we should be talking to users more, so we went ahead and removed as many barriers as possible. It's going to be easy. It's going to be quick. You're going to love it. So, get over there and check it out.
Erin: And then, when you're done with that, go on over to your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review, please.
JH: You mentioned trust in there a couple of times and it feels like that is always the bedrock of, if you don't have trust within the team, relying on somebody else to aggregate and summarize information for you is kind of like a nonstarter. So, it's just, I guess it's just always a factor in these dynamics across different stakeholders and different teams is to make sure that there is some baseline of trust, which is a whole other topic.
Andy: I think so. And I think if you're having those kinds of conversations with your team and somebody says, "Well, I think this user would, this persona would work in this way or in another way." And you disagree, it might be just because of the level of fidelity of the persona is too low and it's then your responsibility to delve back into the data or the research and go, "Well, actually, we found that this is the reality of the situation." So again, personas are not the end of the conversation. I think they're the start of the conversation and they're just a tool for having better conversations.
JH: What this is all reminding me of, there was a tweet from John Cutler the other day that said something like, "Company A does process X and Company A's successful, therefore we should do process X." And his argument basically was, it's not really that process that's what's making successful. It's the process they went through to discover that that was applicable to their business and helpful for their team.
JH: So, it feels similar in this sense of, if you see another company using personas and having success and if you just try to blindly say, "We're using personas now, too," you're not necessarily going to have the same success unless you're also replicating, well, how are we creating those personas? And how are we gathering the data? And how are we tweaking them and iterating on them and how are we distributing that within the team?
JH: So, the underlying stuff of how you actually use these things, also feels super important and not just the headline of, "Does your team use personas or not?" It's really the next layer down of, well how do you use them? How do you create them? And that's the stuff you want to be mimicking.
Andy: Fortunately, I don't think we're in a space at the moment where people are going, "Oh, look, Company X has used personas and they're successful. Hence, I'm going to use them." If anything, it's the opposite. I think we're seeing a huge amount of pushback where people are saying, "Oh, I fundamentally reject personas out of hand, because I've had a few negative experiences with them and I haven't taken the time to really read the books and the articles and what have you." And so I think what's happening is people are rejecting the use of a thing that might be beneficial. And that's not to say that it will be beneficial, it's not, but it's to say that why should we limit the tools that we have in our toolbox?
Andy: Again, I think personas are kind of like the chisel of the designer's toolbox. It's not a thing you use every single day. You might use a hammer every single day, you might use a saw every single day. But, what we've got now is a lot of people that are trying to cut bits of wood with a chisel, ending up with a horrible mess and probably lots of broken bones or cut fingers, and going, "Well, that's useless." [inaudible 00:19:29] the waste of time is that, well, no. You cut wood with a saw and you do something else with a chisel.
Erin: Personas are the chisel in the toolbox. You said they're not the hammer or the saw that you're using every day. What is the hammer and the saw? Again, antithetical to the spirit of this conversation to some extent, because obviously it's going to depend on what your context is and what kind of organization you're in, what your hammer and your saw is. But with that being said, what are some hammers and saws out there that...?
Andy: Well, again, I think there's something interesting around the slow maturation of our industry, that I think maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago when we were sort of inventing this field. All of these dozens and dozens of interesting tools blossomed. And if you go back and look at the conversations 15, 20 years ago, there was a much wider proliferation of tools.
Andy: And I think that's been missing. I think what's ended up happening, is maybe due to the professionalization of industry, maybe due to commercial demands, we now are leaning on a small number of tools that have become crutches. And that's not necessarily a bad thing because these tools have become workhorses. I think the most obvious workhorse is the interactive prototype and whether that's a simple prototype that you knock up in HTML and CSS or whether it's something that you use, a prototyping tool like InVision for. That is basically the tool that almost no screen-based interaction design process would not use at some stage.
Andy: Because, basically what it allows you to do is it allows you to visualize your solution in a very, very quick low fidelity way. Do some kind of cognitive walkthrough to understand whether you've got all of the bases covered, test it with users before you have to write a line of code and prove your concept. I mean sticky notes and lightweight sketches are kind of the precursor to that. The storyboarding approach, which again, does pretty much the same thing. Allows you to understand step-by-step, process by process, screen by screen or interface on interface element, what's going on and how one thing leads to the next thing.
JH: Awesome. You use Twitter a lot. Do you have any ideas or advice of how, as like a design and user research community, we don't fall for the trap of, somebody says something provocative that's thin and lacking context and everyone jumps on it and everyone responds and it becomes the topic of the day. Like just two weekends ago, I think, there was the whole thing of everyone is a designer. Everyone is not a designer, that seemed to dominate my timeline for like three straight days. How do we not fall for that bait?
Andy: Well, I wish I knew, because I fall for it hook, line and sinker every single time. And I was also drawn into that whole debate around everyone is a designer, everyone isn't a designer. I think it's a challenge of the nature of the medium. The very, very short bits of texts that you know, that are designed to agitate, and serve, excite people. I just think, what I tend to get, what tends to annoy me on Twitter is people selling absolutes. Like I say, this is always the case. Or this is never the case. This is always bad. Or this is always good. And we know that like particularly in the design world, it's usually never 100% good, 100% bad.
Andy: Isn't a promoter score, a really weird and not great way of tracking user sentiment around a positive customer experience? Yes. We all know that. The calculations are weird and funky. I wish that there was a more commonly held metric that the other people used. But, do lots of companies use it? Yes. Do lots of MDs and CEOs put value in it? Yes. In that instance, should we wholeheartedly ignore it and throw the baby out with bath water? Or, should we understand its weaknesses but also understand its strengths and try and downplay the weaknesses and enhance the strengths?
Andy: And I think for me, that's all that I generally tend to be trying to do when I weighed in to these debates. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the time, individuals create a hill on which they want to die on. They've staked their reputation over whether something is always good, always bad. And, it's very, very difficult then to argue them down, because it looks like you're backing down and nobody wants to be seen to back down.
Andy: There are always new people coming into our industry and I think it's really easy for those people to hear a couple of really powerful thought leaders, saying that everything is always good or everything's always bad and just agree with it. Because it makes sense and it's much, much harder to go and do the necessary research to find out for yourselves. And what I don't want to see, is us limiting the choices that we have available to us. And so anytime someone says, "Don't use this, it's always bad." It always has a little warning sign, warning claps that go off in my mind, and I want to get into the understanding of why they think it's good and is bad. And it's because they're using it wrong or is it because they're in a context where it's not useful?
Andy: And I think for me this is the fundamental thing, which is don't misattribute you finding no value in a thing, into the thing having no value. So, I think it's fine for you to say, "In my career, I've never found personas useful." Or, "In my career, I've always found net promoter score harmful." Or, "In my perspective, everybody's a designer." I think it gets really problematic when those individuals then extend that to everybody. Because then what you have is you have people that have found personas useful or have found that promoter score useful or do think that not everybody's a designer feel like they're being belittled or bullied around or that their opinions don't matter. I think everyone's opinions do matter, to a certain extent, within objective reasoning and fact.
Erin: Awesome. Andy, any parting thoughts on personas or toolboxes or anything you want to get out there?
Andy: Only pretty much going over the ground of what I've said, which is, tools are really useful. I think we are tool using animals. I think designers need to have as many tools in their toolbox as possible. And there will be trends in tools, there will be fashions. And I think at the moment we're seeing some tools become less fashionable, some become more fashionable.
Andy: But, I think to be a really great designer, what you need to do is become a master tool user. And to do that, you need to use as, learn as many tools as possible. And tools in the sense of, like techniques like personas or prototyping or what have you. Tree testing, et cetera, et cetera. But also, tools in the sense of products. I see a lot of designers that fixate on one prototyping tool. And that's fine if they're working in a particular company that uses that tool. But when they move companies, it could be really, really difficult if they move into an environment where that tool hasn't been used.
Andy: One of the great things I think you get from being a designer in an agency is you're often encouraged and maybe often even needed to use a whole bunch of different tools. So I think it's worth having half a dozen different prototyping tools in your toolbox, three or four animation tools, a bunch of different tools for doing AI or testing or what have you. And every job you do, every new project you do, find an opportunity to try out a new tool and add that to your list of success criteria when you finish the sprint or the epic or the project you're doing. Because as designers, we will only get better and we will only be able to have these nuanced conversations if we get better at understanding the strengths and the weaknesses.
Andy: And if all we do is discuss the strengths or the weaknesses and if everyone that hearing only hears the strengths or the weaknesses, they'll never get a chance to test these things out for themselves. And at the end of the day, I think it's much, much better for individuals to make their own decisions about how a tool can or can't be used, rather than just take it as gospel because some big persona or personality or what have you on Medium or Twitter, whatever said that this is the way things always should be.
Andy: So make up your own minds by testing things out and trying to see what works for you. And again, it's almost like being an artist. Different people have different preferences. Some people might realize that they like a particular kind of pen or pencil or brush. Others might mean, realize they prefer something else, like a pallet knife. You just need to find the tools that work for you. But that doesn't mean that if someone else is using a tool [crosstalk 00:28:16], it's a bad tool or they're stupid for using it.
JH: Yeah. It's an exercise, really. Like if there's a tool or a framework or process that you don't particularly like, just take five minutes and try to argue the other side of it. Like write down the potential strengths of that tool or the positives, right? And just see if you can open up, maybe unblock your mind a little bit and see it from a different perspective.
Carrie Boyd is a UXR content wiz, formerly at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.