The Reframing of Personas: Choosing Flexibility Over Rigid Adherence to Process

By Kelly Moran Principal Experience Researcher, projekt202

By Kelly Moran
Principal Experience Researcher

Personas have been through a lot these past few years. Debuting as a new tool for interaction design in the '90s (typically attributed to Alan Cooper in his book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum), they became the go-to for any group wanting to encourage empathy among disconnected product groups.

One of personas’ original functions was to make the people who used your software feel real to the team. You weren’t building for “users” -- you were building for Sally the Stressed-Out Sales Manager and Andy the Able Admin. By creating multiple personas, a team could appreciate variation among the user base. These personas could then populate user stories and journey maps and become characters for designers, developers and other stakeholders to talk about and relate to.

Losing Focus

As personas, and the underlying assertion that they represented actual people, caught on, some organizations began to push the limits of user individuality. Suddenly, at projekt202, we were working with clients who claimed they had 20-30 unique personas, every one of them with distinctive wants, needs and behavior patterns. This is the business version of the special snowflake. And it’s not a sustainable concept.

To riff off an old saying, you can’t please all the people all the time. Or, as I’ve heard it said more often in the world of software, you serve no one by serving everyone. Personas were intended to help organizations focus on people. Now organizations just need to focus.

The loss of focus in persona creation is ironic, as it is one of the primary goals of Cooper’s personas; that is, to focus the design.

This re-emergent need to focus attention has prompted projekt202 experience researchers and strategists to re-examine how we produce and deliver personas. We’ve been working on customizing our approach by project. Our output is grounded in contextual research and, by closely following what the data has to say, we’ve found we can reshape the typical persona template into something that more accurately represents the user population and better serves the business need. It turns out that one way of doing personas better is by doing less.

“A single profile helps them better define their core value proposition.”
— Abby Margolis, projekt202 Director of Experience Strategy & Insight

One is Still Better Than None

In a recent conversation with Abby Margolis, projekt202 Director of Experience Strategy and Insight, we talked about a tendency among some organizations to acknowledge an increasing diversity of their customer base by making -- and acting on -- assumptions about emerging groups. Companies began feverishly chasing presumed customer segments, throwing features after them like beads at Mardi Gras. It was getting exhausting. They needed to define a sharper focal point.

A recent example involved a company that was trying to gain more market share among small businesses. Stakeholders were overwhelmed at the variation among small businesses in industry, revenue models, maturity, demographics and just about every other area. They wondered which revenue models or groups they should go after first.

Through field research with small business owners, our team helped the client weed through the many nuances that exist in the rather large field of small businesses. Despite the wide variety, we identified a set of shared needs and expectations among this group. These were needs and expectations that were not currently being met either by our client or their competitors who shared common misconceptions about small business; for example, treating them like a small version of a corporation or like a hungry startup rather than a unique business entity.

Serving small business as a whole, it turns out, is a huge opportunity. So, rather than multiple personas, we first built for them a single profile.

As Abby notes of this outcome, “A single profile helps them better define their core value proposition.” Cason Swindle, a projekt202 Experience Researcher, further explains, “A lot of value can come from a clear vision, then later branching out organically.”

Finding the Nuance Within

The one-persona approach is useful in other projects, for a different reason. In some types of software, particularly highly specialized B2B products, users essentially self-select for the job. There is a very narrowly-defined type of person who can do the work. In fact, in some cases like this, a persona in and of itself actually isn’t all that useful. The companies that build for these users often already know a lot about them and about the work they need to accomplish.

This doesn’t mean they don’t need any help improving the user experience; it means they may not need a robust persona deliverable outlining the characteristics of the users they probably already know. With these business challenges, a deeper understanding of how these users shift and adapt throughout their work cycles can be many times more insightful.

We have taken this route on a number of projects, framing the end result as “modes” in an instance of business owners responding to uncertainty in changing markets, and as “mindsets” in working with call-center agents applying various strategies to soothe, inform or even de-escalate customers. The modes were interesting because a business owner might actually employ multiple modes simultaneously – revealing a level of complexity the software must stand up to. The mindsets were insightful in that agents had to bounce between them as they cycled through customers, calling for a nimble interface that intelligently brought them the information they needed.

Adapting to the Need

The flexibility to create the number and type of persona-like profiles, modes and mindsets that the data and the business-need call for results in more robust models. These models serve both the company and the user, and build further empathy, because they take users’ broader circumstances into account and relay those to the organization. They show that users are multi-dimensional and encourage more meaningful ways to engage them.

Note that I don’t intend this to be taken as a critique of UX personas. Rather, it is a commentary on how the concept of personas is frequently used -- or abused -- and a suggestion to try reframing the persona model as the situation -- and the research -- changes from project to project.

As Cason has stated, it's about “identifying the useful patterns in what appears to be chaos.”

Otherwise, a one-template-to-rule-them-all approach that forces the data to bend into a mold will likely yield brittle results.

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