Robust personas don’t guarantee success

This week, Adaptive Path’s Todd Wilkins wrote an excellent blog post on Avoiding Half-Baked Personas. In his post, Todd warns design teams that personas based on fiction can lead to misguided design decisions. Todd writes:

I’ve written about the tension between truth and fiction in personas before. In that tension is the power of personas as a design tool but it is also their greatest potential weakness. Too much fiction leads to misguided design. Too little fiction leads to uninspired design.

I spend a lot of my time reminding clients that robust personas won’t guarantee a successful design. It’s not just about creating the personas. While personas based on real data can vastly improve designs, the real benefit of the persona research is getting members of the team out into the field to observe real users and learn about their context, goals, and desires.

Personas act as a reminder to people about what they learned when observing users out in the field. The important thing teams should remember is that a persona’s primary purpose is to communicate what they already learned about users through the research.

In my experience, the process of developing the personas happens after the team has already gained the REAL value from the research: watching users in their natural environment and learning about their context. That’s why I encourage all members of the design team to attend at least one session, if not more. Without the team’s involvement and participation in the research, even the most robust personas often stagnate, with no one in the organization attending to the research.

When working with clients to develop personas, my goal is to develop personas that are robust. But the most important goal is to establish an ongoing process of gathering user research at the organization. Ideally, organizations reach the point where every member of the design, product, customer support, engineering, and marketing team can say they’ve had first-hand exposure to a user within the last month.