ideation iteration illumination

Personas are useless. OK there I’ve said it. I’ve made a strong, dare I say “controversial”, statement. How useless are they? Well that’s another matter. There is a modicum of utility to them if a designer never gives much thought to who’s on the other side of the of the screen when creating new products. After all, human understanding is the currency we deal in. It is empathy we need, that is what connects us as humans, one to another. Personas are not a necessary means to empathy and can quite often be the heavy mallet that shatters the fragile subtitles that enrich human experience.

Personas are so very correctly referred to as a tool. Some tools prove useful and stand the test of time and some tools turn out not to live up to their promise and should be discarded. The endemic problem is not the personas themselves but rather it’s the designer wielding them. See, we humans are pretty clever and despite the old saying that you “can’t fit a square peg into a round hole”, we can. We can as long as we have the right tool.

There is a long standing tradition of this in literary criticism and especially religion. Don’t believe me just get a priest, a rabbi and an imam in a room and ask for a better understanding of any ‘persona’ in their common texts. Oh yes, you’ll be amazed how well each can reconcile the text with their dogma. It’s the same personalities manipulated through a rainbow of intentions, motivations, cause, effects, desires, dreams, goals and purposes. Most often the outcomes are highly disparate and rarely do they agree (there’s even a ton of inter-deonomiational debate across the their respective strata). But it’s the same text, the same persona, so how could there be so many differences?

That’s just it. We humans are awesome at interpretation. And we love to interpret based on our own needs, goals, hopes, intentions, etc. So when throw personas into the mix of our own goals of creating a successful design, guess what, when the peg doesn’t fit, we make it fit. Conversely, when the developer or the PM has a competing goal, they can make that peg fit too because they can figure out how to use the tool too. I mean it, we’re really good at making connections and convincing ourselves of how right we are (especially when useful to serving our needs).

I’ve had experiences where I resorted to personas in order to assist in a difficult product development process because there were multiple points of view all competing for influence on the design decisions. I turned to the persona tool for a better ‘objective’ understanding of the user and guidance in our process. Unfortunately, the personas did nothing to quell the internal debate and instead offered more fuel to the fire as all sides used the tool and shaped their pegs quite nicely. We were left more entrenched in our perspectives than when we started because the personas validated all of us.

There is a very real place for designers. As competent professionals, it is our task to develop empathy at a reflexive level. Like a photographer’s sensitivities to the subtle interactions of light and shadow and a musician’s perception for complex interplay between rhythm and harmony, empathy is a skill that must be practiced, again and again, until it is internalized and able to be summoned at will. Empathy is a far more effective tool in our design arsenal than personas. Some designers are gifted with a natural aptitude and need to hone it it, others must work hard to achieve it with every new challenge. As with any tool, skill comes with time, experience, wins and losses but choosing the right tool for the job is critical step towards success.


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