As a kid, I loved Saturday morning cartoons. Aside from being the one time we were allowed to watch more than a half hour of television, I loved the characters. Popeye, who grew incredibly strong with a single can of spinach and Superman, who became weak in the presence of Kryptonite.
On the eve of what used to be the hallowed Saturday morning cartoon fest, I decided to carrying the analogy forward to discuss a question I was recently asked, “what are the strengths (the Spinach) and weaknesses (the Kryptonite) of Personas?”
If you’re unfamiliar with Personas, they’re a model of a fictional person who represents a group of individuals having common characteristics. Created after conducting UX Research, they condense research data into the most salient details about the type of user; including a summary of who they are, primary objectives, pain points and key characteristics.
What is the Spinach and Kryptonite of Personas? Let’s start with the strengths, the Spinach.
Personas provide an external focus for design discussions. Far too often development teams start design discussions in an echo chamber, thinking in terms of our past experiences with similar software or websites. The problem is our experiences are our interpretation of events and interpretations are always bias. When we design from our own experiences, we end up designing for ourselves not the people who will ultimately have to use the website or application.
To break out of an insular design process we need an external touchstone to help build understanding and empathy. Personas help move the conversation from “here’s what I would do…” to “what would Jane or John do?” and provide a litmus test for potential design strategies.
Then what’s the Kryptonite?
They’re fiction. While good UX Research ensures each data point represents real people, the Persona is not. They represent a broad collection of characteristics, objectives and pain points and because they’re a summary they lack the minutia needed to make very specific design decisions. Think of Personas like wireframes, critical for mapping out the landscape but not the right tool for fine detail.
Personas can also create over confidence. I have a vivid memory of a young designer convinced he understood what it was like for senior citizen users because of a “fierce” Persona. It’s important to understand that while a Persona can give insight and help you empathize with the experience of another user, it doesn’t mean you’ve experienced life as they have. Personas don’t tell the whole story.
So, are Personas worth it? I think so. There are several tricks to keeping your Personas high on Spinach and low on Kryptonite. I’ll cover that in my next article…