Creating Personas – Likely Pitfalls and how to Sidestep Them

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In his book the The Inmates are Running the Asylum, Alan Cooper cites the example of a movie production process to highlight the importance of pre-execution planning.

A movie production process can be seen as comprising three stages – pre-production, production and post-production. Production is where the movie is shot – with the movie stars, on-location, with a small army of assistant directors, camera-men, and other crew. It is easy to see that the daily costs would significantly go up for the duration of the production phase.

Due to this reason, the team gets one go at production. It would be disastrous to get it wrong. The only way to ensure that does not happen is to meticulously plan out every detail of the production phase during pre-production.



Similar to a movie pre-production, a persona creation exercise can benefit immensely from pre-creation efforts of accounting for the human factors that can otherwise derail the exercise.

Personas are key to understanding end-users and designing for them in cross-functional Product teams. A persona creation exercise takes on an average about 9 person-days of work – a significant amount of effort by any measure. Moreover there is a reputation risk – if a persona creation exercise has failed once, co-workers are likely to lose faith and may not even give personas a second chance.

It is easy to fret too much about the exercise itself, while overlooking the human factors of inertia and resistance-to-change, that can ultimately doom a persona exercise. Developers, designers, and marketers bring their own unique perspectives to the table that they have gained through experience. Convincing them to cast that aside and put personas at the center of end-user-related discussions, will take careful planning and due efforts to accomplish.

What are Personas

Personas are fictional representations of your archetypal customers with similar motivations and attitudes towards your products. They are seen in the context of their goals and scenarios. Personas were first made popular by Alan Cooper, with relation to better interface designing. However he had written about the wider applicability of personas across engineering, marketing and quality control, which is very much in practice today.

Pitfalls in the Persona Creation Process

1. The intended audience does not use the personas

The first category of pitfalls arises when the internal stakeholders – the intended audience of the persona exercise, do not use the personas available at their disposal.

1.a The intended audience does not have sufficient understanding or appreciation of personas

During product development, personas are supposed to be a reference point, an anchor, for any discussion on how the end user will use the finished product. People from various teams such as engineering, design, quality, marketing etc. are expected to empathize with the end user by empathizing with the personas. However not everyone may have an appreciative understanding of personas – what they encompass, when they should be used, and to what extent. It would be futile to expect people to embrace an approach they don’t quite understand.

1.b They do not believe personas are helpful

People can be skeptical or mistrustful of personas. For the uninitiated, the question is, would you rather trust your instincts or a made-up character? For non-designers the case for personas is not as strongly established as that for say, Agile or Scrum. This, despite personas at its core just being an attempt at better customer centricity.

1.c The personas were created but have since been forgotten

This is the final nail in the coffins of the personas. Through continued overlooking of the personas, they are slowly but steadily erased from the collective memory of the company and exist only in email archives now.

2. Existing personas are irrelevant to the problem under consideration

Personas do not have meaning in isolation. Personas are useful only when viewed in conjunction with the goals and scenarios for which the personas were created. Personas created for one goal will be completely worthless in the context of another goal. Thus for each new design problem statement, a fresh persona exercise needs to be conducted as past ones may be inadequate in answering the present questions.



3. The personas do not represent the customers

Any research project will have errors; the key is to limit errors to an acceptable tolerance level. However if the personas created deviate significantly from the “truth” then they might be dangerously misleading in product development efforts.

It is difficult to spot when this error has been committed. It might creep up during any of the steps – recruitment, customer interviews, analysis, or persona sketching. However the good news is this is more controllable and with proper planning and processes can be easily avoided.

Sidestepping Pitfalls in the Persona Creation Process

Dealing with apathy towards the personas

Internal stakeholders not using the personas can be thought of as a classic marketing problem – selling an idea to internal stakeholders.
Thus, it can be addressed with a classic marketing approach. Let’s apply the Awareness-Interest-Desire-Action (AIDA) framework here.

1. Creating awareness through Buy-in from leadership

Introducing personas into a company’s culture has a far better chance of surviving with a buy-in from the top leadership. Drawing from the authority of the leadership, the persona exercise will be taken seriously by employees if the top leadership proclaims its faith in it.

2. Creating awareness through in-office marketing

An initial awareness campaign can be created for employees with email newsletters, announcements, physical standees, leaflets and other such traditional marketing collaterals.

3. Arousing interest by showing proof – Video recordings, phone conversations

It is likely that personas will be first met with skepticism and mistrust. How does one convince such skeptics? One powerful method is to show the actual ongoing research – video or phone recordings of user interviews. These are concrete data points and will help swing the opinion of the skeptical, scientifically inclined.

4. Desire – Involving the intended audience in the process

Creating desire is about emotionally investing the internal stakeholders in the persona process.
One way to do this is to let the intended audience in on your person creation process. It has been established that involving team members in the decision-making process can help them develop a sense of ownership of the resulting personas.

Employees can be given some small tasks. Soliciting options for the persona names can be a fun, yet powerful way of establishing an emotional connect of the intended audience with the personas. There is a likelihood this could go the Boaty McBoatface way, though with a little guidance it is not entirely undesirable.

5. Action – Weaving personas into workflows

In her excellent and thought-provokingly titled article, User personas: don’t let them die…, Anna Miedzianowska describes several measures their company took to weave personas into daily workflows of their employees, including the developers. They created life-sized cut-outs of the personas, complete with real hi-vis vests and placed them in the office premises. The personas were given their own email-IDs and physical ID cards as well. These personas drew a lot of attention and triggered conversations among employees that otherwise would not have taken place.



5. Action – Equipping with the right tools

Forming habits is easier when the tasks are made easy to perform. Investing in the right tools can make the process of creating, managing and invoking personas easier. Fathom is a tool that helps you recruit and conduct persona interviews. Hubspot’s Make My Persona is a nice interactive tool to arrange the information into a persona template easily, though it is somewhat limiting in the information you want to include in the persona.

I hope this helps you dodge some easy-to-spot problems with your persona creation exercise. Please let us know in the comments below about your experience with creating and making personas an integral part of your company’s work culture.

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