RAA#4 Personas Revisited

Title & Author

Friess, E. (2012, May). Personas and decision making in the design process: an ethnographic case study. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’12). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1209-1218.

Purpose of the research

Personas are well-known technique for the interaction design process. But as we can see the example of the RAA#2, the current status of adoption among the professional designers are unclear. This paper tries to investigate this problem using the ethnographic case study.

This paper received a CHI 2012 Best Paper Awards.


The author investigates the problem using ethnographic methods. He participated and observed how the designers use personas during the design process. To enable objective view, she used a linguistic analysis. The reason she used an ethnographic methods was that even though there are many claims about the personas, it is not yet empirically supported by the practice. (Remember at the IBM half of seasoned designers thought that personas was useless and didn’t used.) That means that the actual behavior of the designers can be differ from what they insist or think about personas.

So this paper begins with the summary of the previous claims about the personas like “Personas engender interest and empathy toward users” or “Personas help diffuse conflict or disagreement among team members when discussing possible design solutions.” Will it be really the case in real world? To see this, she participated in the design process of top tier design consulting firm, where personas are well accepted. She recorded every meeting where design decisions were made, and analyzed the script.

Main findings

Q: How often the personas were used in their talk?
A: About 2%

Q: Who invoked a persona?
A: Mainly designers. Not clients. In detail, there were 4 designers. And 2 of them participated in the field work and developed the personas. Not surprisingly, it was those 2, who developed the personas, who mentioned the personas most frequently. (85% of all persona mention)

Q: Which personas were invoked?
A: There were 8 personas. Only 3 of them explains the 97.8% of design talk. (This can lead to the practical insight of the number of personas).

Q: When were personas invoked?
A: During the scenario meeting for cognitive walkthrough. In other words, they made a story how each persona character will interact with the product.

Q: How were Personas used in Decision-Making?
A: Mainly for Role playing(48%) and Focusing(34%).

  • An example of Role playing

“So, Dr. Samuels, she would probably not do that. She checks her timing, looks at the scree, and makes the diagnosis.”

  • An example of Focusing

“Well, that might be ideal for Georgia, but for now we needed to close in how autopilot can make this thing foolproof for Michael.”

Other than Role-playing and focusing, there were meeting maintenance(11%), empathy(3%), clarification(3%) and approximation (1%).

Analysis of the result

Despite the fact that this group spent several week interviewing end users and developing personas, they make relatively few mention in the actual design process except the meeting for the cognitive walkthrough. And the “common language benefit” is overly idealized for the clients never referred personas.

Instead of the persona (3%), they used their own opinions(25%) and story telling(21%) during the design process, for example to persuade design solution.


I have an opinion about the persona process. I think it is a like novel-writing using research data. Why designers do that? They do it to process the data mentally in higher level. During the process of personas creation, the designers unconsciously analyze the research data to create a story.  This enables deeper processing and understanding, which leads to the longterm memory.  So what is important is not the persona but the writing process itself.

So for me, it is not surprising to see that the persona itself is not so much used in the decision making process even in the top-tier firm where personas are widely accepted.  Because the designers “gained”, “digested” and “internalized” the insight about the target users during the personas process, they don’t have to rely on the personas for any specific purpose. The insights are shared among the designers who participated in the personas creating process. So they can focus on the design-domain specific issue using design language.

And it is not surprising for me, that those who created personas, used them most frequently(85% of all mention). My view is also supported by the author, who says “It appears that those who are involved in the creation of the persona have a better understanding of the personas and the user-at-large than those who are mere recipients of the personas.”

Also for me, designing using the personas developed by others are completely wrong use of the technique.

Finally one thing interesting to me is that an ethnographic study is usually done by the designers to understand the users. However in this paper, the study subject is the designers themselves.

“This reflexive move enables a descriptive assessment of how designers themselves actually use personas, not just how designers think they use personas or how designers think persons should be used.”


One thought on “RAA#4 Personas Revisited

  1. I do not see a problem in that only the designers mentioned the personas. That’s exactly what they’re there for.

    And yes, there are many studies of the design process itself and also how to teach it better.

    Good RAA. I will update your points on Bb.

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