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Risks and Disadvantages of Using Personas

This is a joint article with the Persona team and Alina Zahid from Storyteller’s Saga.

User personas are an essential tool to design a target audience and plan your campaign accordingly. It is because they highlight the key features, behaviors, and interests of your target audience. From identifying their financial capacity to their buying patterns – user personas are a very common tool used for setting up a target audience.

However, there is another side to this frequently used method as well. We found a fascinating discussion on Quora about the risks and disadvantages of using personas, where design experts share their experiences using personas. To analyze whether personas are as useful as they are assumed to be, we will highlight some of the points from this Quora thread and discuss them at length.

What the Experts Say about Personas

There are many established and well-reputed individuals who have contributed to this discussion thread. Many of them share the same view that user personas are not as trustworthy as they appear to be. The commonality that our team found in these answers was that many feel user personas create a stereotype or a fictional character that may or may not turn out to be valid in reality.

There are five main concerns that the design experts have raised regarding user personas:

  1. Many experts believe that most of the time, the data collected for creating a user persona is based on stereotypes about a group and thus can not be relied upon.
  2. They also feel that given that the data is unreliable, the time and resources spent on persona creation can be unwise for a business given the efforts it takes.
  3. They also believe that the personas are based on the user’s aspirations as opposed to reality. That is to say that it considers whether a person is interested in buying a certain product or service, not if they have the means to buy it.
  4. Many have also pointed out that use personas can become outdated quickly in regards to a global change or a general change of trend in the marketing, rendering months of research, resources, and time useless.
  5. Lastly, they all believe that more often than not, user personas are simply used as a tool to sell as opposed to genuinely trying to understand the consumer behavior and gauging their satisfaction.

In the following, we dissect each participant’s viewpoints and discuss our take on them.

Andreas Mehne’s Viewpoint

According to the User Experience Designer Andreas Mehne, “a true persona is the composite archetype of shared behaviors.” He believes that “to derive personas of the substance you need to observe behavior patterns of the several of the right kind of people.” But he also states that “the downside is that this takes significant time and effort, which can be tough to sell to your stakeholders.”

Our Team’s Take on This

We feel that the point that Mehne has made does hold merit. In business and entrepreneurship, time is a valuable asset. Creating personas requires extensive research thus takes up a lot of time. We believe, if something is not providing an efficient result for your business then investing a lot of resources and time on it would prove to be futile. However, if the project design allows time and resources for extensive research then it is a good idea to invest in enhanced user understanding. 

How to avoid this risk? Consider the realities of the design effort and ensure proper allocation of resources for user research.

Arthur Clemens’ Viewpoint

Another expert in UX, Arthur Clemens, clearly disregards the use of personas by highlighting the situations in which this method is problematic. First, he writes, “when personas are sold as deliverable, and there are limited time and budget to do research.” He says since the job budget does not include all the research required to create an efficient persona, so while you may have the idea that you are going to follow the persona creation process the right way, you probably don’t get the means to follow through. He sees that as a hindrance to creating personas.

Secondly, he believes that personas mean different things to different departments. It is because marketing does the personas and often, they are based on customer demographics and aspirations, not user behaviors. What this does is create a misleading interpretation of the client data as it can create false characteristics of the users.

Further, he points out that since most UX designers are not people researchers, therefore, when they do their research instead of taking help from the marketing department, it becomes problematic because they are not experts in the field.

Our Team’s Take on This

We feel that the problem highlighted by Clemens is specific to an instance where there is a problem in the research. He believes that when the marketing department creates a user persona, mostly it ends up being sales-driven as opposed to being a data collection of actual behaviors. Similarly, if the UX designers conduct research, they will most likely fail at the task because researching and marketing is not their best quality.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that both the marketing departments and the UX designers are ill-equipped or misguided in their research. We do agree with the problem highlighted. However, we feel that it is a more pessimistic approach as it relies on the chances of mistakes. It is better to hire professional researchers for this purpose and then develop personas based on their extensive research data.

How to avoid this risk? Hire professional researchers for this purpose and then develop personas based on their extensive research data.

Vig Raj’s Viewpoint

Vig Raj significantly points out that “most designers take advantage of this and add their fictional stories to it.” He believes that the personas are all made up of stories, and therefore they are not a reliable data source. He considers it a “brilliant tool to fool others” because designers don’t do much of their research and simply base all their designs on the persona, which by all means, is not based on the most trusted data. He sees it all as made-up work and a waste of time and resources.

Our Team’s Take on This

We think that this is a very blunt yet exciting point of view considering how Matt Fernand elaborates about Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow. He has effectively explained how the phenomenon of “what you see is all there is” works in creating personas and the viewer’s understanding of the audience. The problem which he is highlighting is that of reading things on a surface. 

The idea is that even if you collect data from the right target audience, there is no guarantee that the interests they showed were based on reality. It is because as humans most of our interactions are based on our perception. It is very likely that an individual didn’t mean something but we perceived it out to be otherwise. That is why too much reliance on user personas can be risky as it may or may not be based on reality. Instead, user personas should be taken as supportive data and not the only source of user insights.

How to avoid this risk? Make sure personas are based on real data. Even then, consider personas as supportive data and not the only source of user insights.

Maria Kozeij’s Viewpoint

Another UX designer, Maria Kozeij highlights the ways the use of personas turns out to be inefficient. She writes, “creating personas based on assumptions and not real data excavated from market and user research,” “spending too much time on creating very detailed personas.” 

She also points out that focusing on any one type of persona and not taking into consideration all the other types that can be used also hinders in true audience reach-out. She believes that if we are using personas, then we must “use them as a constant tool during each stage of product development.” Joana Nagai points out that since the personas are ever-changing, they can quickly become outdated. Gabriel Cavelheiro further reinstated the other points of view by affirming that creating user personas is time-consuming and believes that personas develop from through research and not as an initial product. Ula Rydiger also insists that personas are not real-time data.

Our Team’s Take On This

We feel that Koziej sums up a significant issue with creating user personas. The problem is creating personas take up a lot of time. However, since personas do have a significant role in creating effective designs, designating professional researchers to collect detailed and updated information on the audience would be better rather than the designers focusing on research. We all know that buyers are humans at the end of the day. And predicting human behavior cannot be accurate most of the time. That is why we feel that supporting resources for persona creation and adoption are needed, so that the designers can focus more on their field of expertise. 

How to avoid this risk? Use validated data on users – especially their behaviors – to generate personas. Periodically update your personas. Try to leverage real-time data as much as possible.

What It Means When We Say That User Personas Can Be Risky

It is fascinating to see how almost every one of the respondents believes the personas to be an ineffective method of understanding the demand of the buyers. They all agree that personas provide unreal and unreliable data, which can be time and resource wasting. Those who agree that extensive research is required to create efficient personas also understand how it can be exhausting since the user personas are ever-changing (as user behavior is ever-changing). 

One thing that all the responses point to is the overall inefficient business turnout due to the unreliability of personas. Although, some do think that if the technical measures are taken in developing personas, then they might be fruitful to some extent. Still, the overall discontent with the use of personas in design seems to be widespread. 

One trend that we notice in this discussion is that the practical field professionals understand they cannot rely on just assumptions or make-believe expectations of their userbase to cater to their needs effectively. They know to gain maximum turn out for their products they need real-time data. The most common problem highlighted in this discussion is how personas are just a waste of time and resources unless they are based on real user data and are up-to-date. 

If we look on the bright side, personas are used in creating designs. If they are not all just fictional characters, then how convenient and productive it would be to generate models based on them. However, if personas are not based on reliable source of information about the users, we can see how they can be moot and misleading in the professional domain. 

Imagine you create your campaign designs that seem to be hitting the spot with the persona, but it does not give the desired results, all your hard work is reduced to a negative value since your target did not hit home.

Considering how fast and competitive the design world has become, it would be wise to take onto several other practical and professional tools like Google keywords, Google Trends, Talkwalker alerts, Keyhole, Share tally, etc, which will lead to creating effective designs rather than just depending on a single source of user data.

But Are Personas Useless?

“Are personas useless?” seems like a moot question. Personas not being based on real data can be the case with all market research outputs; they can all be based on assumptions of different kinds. Yet, nobody is saying market research should not be done at all. 

Essentially, business (design) success originates from customer (user) understanding, and personas are a vehicle for customer (user) understanding. One can do bad work with any tool and any type of market research. The key is not “choose the tool right”, but “choose a tool and use it right”.

Conclusion

Despite everything, personas are not all moot because no matter how fictional, they do present a general idea of what is expected from your customer or user. Personas give you a headstart on researching. Nevertheless, as you move on further in creating your plans, it is best to apply several different methods like Think with Google and Followerwonk to get a broader and clearer picture of what to create for whom. As one of the answers in the post talked about how he found it annoying that the personas were so misleading and fictional that he would rather not have to work on his designs with them, it makes us think how important it is to have authentic details. 

At the end of the day, it is your stakeholders and your buyers who will determine what the real face of a persona looks like in real life. If you fail to capture that in your design, you risk losing your business if you mistakenly rely on the personas as the sole data source: that risk is too big for any business.

Bottom line: The identified issues are perhaps not flaws in personas, but flaws of implementation of personas. These flaws can be fixed by proper management, real user data, and active updating of personas. Personas have been around for 20 years and are still going strong, so whatever weaknesses they have, can be addressed. 

By Joni Salminen

Dr. Joni Salminen works as a Scientist at Qatar Computing Research Institute, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, and as a Postdoctoral Researcher at Turku School of Economics, University of Turku. His research interests are heavily focused on personas, including topics such as automatic persona generation from social media data (YouTube, Facebook, Google Analytics), persona perceptions, biases in data-driven personas, optimal number of personas, etc.

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