RAA#2 Persona: The Journey is the reward.

Caution: If I say, someone misunderstood something, it implies that my view is right and theirs are wrong.  However I understand that there is always possibility that it is actually me who is wrong.   I would like to inform you that I understand this.  But I will say “They misunderstood” instead of “Even though there is possibility that I can be wrong, I think that they are misunderstood” to save typing, so saving the earth, and shortening sentences so that it is more easy to read.

So without further ADO, let’s start!

Title & Author

How Do Designers and User Experience Professionals
Actually Perceive and Use Personas? by Tara Matthews, Tejinder K. Judge, and Steve Whittaker

Purpose of the research 

Persona seems to be the source of the debate.  Is it effective for design?  If effective, in what aspects is it effective? Does real-world experienced designers use this technique in their design process?  If not, why?   This research paper tries to answer this kind of answers.


They gathered 12 very experienced designers and UX professional into 2 hour interview.  It seems they belongs to the IBM. First they asked about their background and experience with the persona.  Then during the process, the authors asked the designers to design something providing persona.  And the authors watched their discussion and analyzed their conversation to check whether persona is used in the design process.

Main findings

They categorized the participants according to their opinion about persona, which is Persona champion, Persona Moderate and Persona pessimist.  After analyzing the interview script, they found that most designers DID NOT use persona during the design process.  They just tried to the extract user information like age, role, degree of skills and so on, and relied in these information to design.  However everybody agreed that Persona is great for communication with other people like stakeholders or developers. The reason they didn’t use persona is, they thought persona is too abstract or too-much personal detail which is a fiction is misleading or distracting other characteristic that is based on the user research.  Interestingly the three designers who attended  Cooper University or have created persona themselves was persona champion and had an opposite view against about these reasons why other persona pessimist didn’t use persona.


Frankly speaking, I was so surprised how many misunderstanding about the persona process is still there.  Also there was very dubious industry practice was developing which is distinguishing UX and design, and UX doing research and persona and passes them to design.  Let me explain this more.

First the authors requested the designers to use persona developed by others during the process.  It seemed to me that the authors themselves did not understand the persona developing process.   The persona is like writing novel based on user research.  Why we do that?  It is a high-level processing of the information to make structure in our mental model and longterm memory so that it can be better understood and more easier to recall.  Simply speaking if we have to memorize a book for exam, it is better for us to make a structured mindmap than just reading it again and again.  So the whole purpose of the persona is writing the persona.  The process is to promote the sympathy of the designer over the user.  In other words, designers tries to be in user’s shoe to understand them more thus making better design for them.  One similar approach is if designing for the blind, the designer himself will try to close his eyes while doing daily task so that he can understand better about being a blind.    So the whole value of the persona lies in the developing it.  The journey is the reward.  It is not outcome of process but the process itself, which is important.

To be honest with you, I rarely use personas myself… I find them useful for requirements gathering and I actually find them useful for the client. But I don’t design with them or design off of them. The reason is that it’s a great tool to get people to start thinking about the thing they are building in terms of users but in my experience, personas tend to be overly optimistic. They describe the best-case scenario for the perfect user who is incredibly enthusiastic about the system… Personas are not helpful because the users don’t match up to the personas.

-> The reason he thinks persona is not reflecting the user is because he/she didn’t participate in the persona generation process including user research.

You can’t design to somebody else’s understanding of the problem. You need to be part of the user research to design something. That is where the best designs come from. –E3, Designer

What I don’t like is how distilling something into a persona, so for example if I’m making an e-commerce app and I can take all 40-something women shoppers in the Mid-West and turn that into ‘Katie’ my persona, I feel like the generalization that is being made at that point, makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, rather than just having the body of research to start with. – M1, Designer

Also the distinction of the role between UX and design makes me confusing.  Does design means interaction or visual design?  UX means interaction design or user/usability research?  It seems that companies are trying to make distinction between those who conduct user research and those who do the design.   However according to the cooper, the essence is the designer participates actively in user research.  And the persona is outcome of their understanding of the user research.   Comment like because the persona is too abstract, I will use user research data itself when  there is enough time, makes me wonder if he/she understood the concept of persona.

Finally about the detail, if the designer himself participated in the user research, he will know what is important user characteristic and what is an interesting make-up of detail to make it real.  However if the designer didn’t participated in the user research, the designer does not know this, and what he tries to do is doing this process in his mind using the stereo-typical assumption about the user.  That was the pitfall where persona wanted to avoid.    The details of persona is like a detailed gesture of actors who would like to convey the characteristics of the role nonverbal way.


Additional comment – Added later

After reading UXB chapter 17,  I began to think maybe I am focusing only on the small domain of the interaction design, where small design team, like Cooper or IDEO completes the interaction design part and pass it to the dev team.  There maybe other domains, where the engineering part holds the key or it has a large organization where the role of the design is limited in to changing existing designs.   For example, if I am an interaction designer in Google, and if I would like to change the labels, which I think confusing, I can’t tell them change it.  I would have to gather evidence to support my claim like user testing of 100 people showing it is really confusing.   I am beginning to drop my prejudice and be open minded to accept the new learnings from the book.  It is quite refreshing how reading books changes the understanding.

If I apply this understanding to the this article and industry trend, it makes sense that, at least for some people, persona is useless.  Because persona was developed in the context of small design team completing interaction design process, it does not fit in the other situation, where the engineering may hold keys or such a large organization with existing product.


3 thoughts on “RAA#2 Persona: The Journey is the reward.

  1. RR UXB CH16~17 « intuinno by Deok Gun Park

  2. Sorry I missed this RAA and am commenting so late. It seems that the people who didn’t like/use personas are the ones who didn’t know the concept and the procedures well…

    Good RAA. Your points on Bb.

  3. RAA#4 Personas Revisited « intuinno by Deok Gun Park

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