Personas are controversial. This is largely due to the fact that when done badly, they can make you feel like you've been at a party trying to mingle with a bunch of cardboard cut-outs. Sadly, they're often done badly.
For non-UX folk, personas are "fictional characters created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic, attitude and/or behaviour [sic] set that might use a site, brand or product in a similar way".1 Personas can be used by product owners to better understand product users. They can also be used by product designers and developers to better cater to product users.
The problem with the process of creating personas, however, is that in building fictional characters, it's too easy to employ stereotype and bias. Often stock photos are used – picture-perfect Photoshopped representations that don't resemble actual users and thus rob authenticity from the exercise. Persona descriptions sometimes offer no nuances, subtleties, quirks or differences that go a long way to proving user groups as relatable humans.
Poorly done personas, at best, can cloud the actual outcome of your research and at worst, can reinforce negative assumptions about certain user groups e.g. "Older women are scared of computers," or "Low socio-economic groups have limited access to technology" and so on. One of the holy tenets of UX, you could say, is not making assumptions. The risk of presuming user characteristics, background and behaviour is we don't find out the (more likely) unusual truths and by proxy don't end up catering to them.
So what are our alternatives? Given the task of doing a persona exercise recently, I had a search online and stumbled on the following great case study.
You can view the slides here:
You can listen to the audio here:
Avoid BS Personas
Jill Christ and Stephanie Carter feel so strongly about bad personas that they are willing to employ vernacular - these are not just bad personas, they're "BS"!
This 40 min presentation is well worth a watch / listen as the two speakers highlight the "fluff" in bog standard BS personas and give an excellent example of a non-BS persona study by way of their case study with lynda.com.
As an approach to UX in general, this talk is a reminder not to get stuck in lazy template-based exercises. If we keep questioning, brainstorming, workshopping and honing authentic methods to understanding users, we'll not only get closer to our goal, we'll likely enjoy connecting to users on a more human level.