Are personas actually useful?

I hear this question a lot. It’s kind of an annoying question, like asking:

  • “is analytics useful?”, or
  • “is marketing useful?”.

Or, most importantly: “Is customer understanding useful?”

Personas are just a tool. It’s their use that creates (or doesn’t create) the value, just like with analytics or marketing.

But I understand the question. The reason behind is that so many people struggle to create good personas and get people to actually use them. This is evident from many real industry cases I’ve seen.

People spend a lot of time creating personas and then they are forgotten, and not actively used in design or marketing.

This can be very frustrating, and result in question the whole purpose of personas.

What to do, then?

In my experience, to be successful, a few things need to happen for personas:

  1. They need to be well-made: not “bullshit personas“, but data-driven and empathetic. Personas need to be realistic, complete, relevant, consistent, and insightful to work.
  2. Everybody in the team needs to be on board with persona creation and their acceptance. Resistance kills a persona project quicker than anything.
  3. The personas need to be connected with ‘x’ (see my post here explaining the concept). Without this ‘x’, personas are useless.

When these three things align, the persona project comes together and personas are useful. They are useful in several ways: by making sales people understand the buyers, by making copywriters understand their
audience, and by providing inspiration for startup founders to create products that serve real people.

The Bottom Line

The fact that so many people question personas shows that something is wrong. “No smoke without fire”, like they say. But it’s not the concept of personas itself that is flawed; it’s their implementation (most of the time). Well implemented personas work, as does any method that increases customer / user understanding.

Want to see the usefulness of personas in action?

Salminen, J., Jung, S.G., Chowdhury, S. Şengün, S., and Jansen, B. J.  (2020) Personas and Analytics: A Comparative User Study of Efficiency and Effectiveness for a User Identification Task. ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’20), Honolulu, HI, USA. 25–30 April, 1-13.