Persona Insight? You Decide

by on March 2, 2008

At last, people are openly acknowledging that persona development, or at least the dogma that comes with it, is weird. I’ve been rude about Alan Cooper before, but this is another chance to stick the boot in.

I blame Cooper for coming up with the wonderful idea of personas. They’re great for summarising research. They help people – anyone really – get closer to design solutions when things get complicated. In my opinion, however, the problem space needs to be complex or personas are more trouble than they’re worth. Well, that’s one of their problems anyway (a bit like use cases really).

Cooper ruined his own ideas by being unclear, or at least inconsistent, and basically unhelpful when evangelising them. Have a skim through this article on B&A, which is the latest in a long line of people trying to make sense of what is a pretty much nonsensical area in Cooper’s dogma (and I use that word on purpose). The writer says that Cooper vetted at least part of the article. That’s a reason to be even more suspicious of its clarity then!

My response to all this is in the comments (repeated below for reasons of Googlejuice record):

37Signals’s assertion that you can only design for yourself is trivially true, but worthless as a practical oberservation. Just thought I’d get that off my chest!

It seems to me that Cooper presented two separate perspectives on personas which have given rise to the endless and confused debate about them ever since. The first perspective is that they are for inspiring the designer (cf his walking on the golf course anecdote), and the second is that they are for inspiring the development team (cf a large chunk of Inmates).

If, for example, a persona is something you have in your head after meeting some real user(s) of your intended product, then that implies documentation isn’t necessary. As the designer, you just need to know your users and design accordingly. Not a very complicated idea (and whether this justifies Andrew’s rather tangential rant about the evils of deliverables cuture I don’t really know).

If, however, a persona is something you construct as an artefact, then what is that artefact for? Cooper says it’s for making sure the development team (ie those who have the power to royally screw up the product) do the right thing. So, create PPT decks, posters, t-shirts and the whole thing. This is bacuase the proor devils can’t actually meet their users (it’s impractical). Also not a very complicated or difficult idea to grasp, assuming the development team will wear the idea, that is.

Now here’s the first tricky problem that comes out of these two perspectives: the designer can influence the design; the develoment team can also influence the design. So (wonders Andrew) what perspective do you take? Cooper’s no help – he has it both ways. He also designs (or says he designs) massively complex systems that require him to shamanically commune within the minds of his users. Most of us, however, design websites selling things people don’t want.

Let the debate continue, I say. I love personas. I also hate their guts.

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