9 Things Clients Get Wrong About Personas

Without further ado, here are nine things that people often get wrong about personas (based on our experience):

  1. Personas are not based on real data. WRONG! This misconception stems from the era when personas were predominantly created based on interviews. The thing is, interviews are also real data. But, nonetheless, the argument was that since personas were based on qualitative observations and not real numbers, they were made up and not believable. This has changed with the rise of data-driven personas that are based on online analytics, digital CRM, and social media user data. In other words, modern personas are based on the same data as any other state-of-the-art analytics tool.
  2. Personas are “nice to have” but not really useful. WRONG! Personas can generate a nice positive ROI for your company (up to 400%, according to Forrester Research). Think about it – doesn’t it make sense that understanding customer needs results in offering more marketable solutions and therefore higher sales? Whereas, if you lack empathetic understanding of customer needs, you can be certain that sooner or later, sales will drop (unless you operate in a monopoly industry, which most of us don’t).
  3. Personas can’t be updated without expensive manual work. WRONG! Personas can be made to automatically update with the baseline user data, to reflect the changes in users’ behaviors and preferences. We have demonstrated this principle multiple times in our research on continuously updating personas over time. (See a neat analysis here.)
  4. Personas are not necessary because we can target individual customers. WRONG! This is like saying user segments do not matter, because you can have a “segment of one” for everything. Which sounds compelling, until you start to understand that a segment of one means you’d have… up to one million different segments. Personas, just like customer segments, are abstractions that help manage the complexity of million individuals. From a strategic point of view, you cannot constantly keep one million customers (or even a hundred!) on mind, but you can easily cope with four personas that describe your core customers.
  5. Personas are expensive to create. WRONG! Personas can be expensive, but they do not necessarily need to be. Using modern technology, replicability and automation helps drastically reduce the cost of persona creation projects, making personas available for a wider audience with limited budgets, such as startups and non-profits. You can even get personas for free, if you satisfy certain conditions.
  6. Personas are not interactive. WRONG! Modern interactive persona systems make it easy to interact with personas, through features such as filtering and refreshing their quotes, inspecting data distributions, and comparing personas by their attributes. These features are not possible when distributing personas via paper format, but fortunately Web-based online systems have changed all that.
  7. Personas are just stereotypes of people. WRONG! Personas are only stereotypes if you create them to represent means, averages, and modes, instead of portraying the range of different user attributes. Again, one can do a good or bad job with persona creation; badly done personas reflect the ignorance of their creators, not a fundamental flaw in personas.
  8. Anyone can make personas. WRONG! Well, technically anyone can. But that doesn’t make sense. Made-up ad-hoc personas do more harm than good – they perpetuate stereotypes and preconceived notions of users, instead of actually teaching designers and developers something new about their users. High-quality personas are created by experienced people that understand the concept of personas thoroughly, and can master the skills required to avoid common pitfalls of personas.
  9. Personas take a long time to be ready. WRONG! Modern persona generation methodologies, such as the Automatic Persona Generation, can generate personas within a work day. This is very different from the days of old, when persona creation projects could last for months, contingent on manually conducted interviews. Data science algorithms and Application Programming Interfaces have really changed the game for collection and analysis of user data.

Hope this post helps debunk some common myths about personas! If you have any feedback, feel free to reach out: jsalminen@hbku.edu.qa. (Always love to talk personas 🙂 )