The Pointlessness of Personas

Once upon a time, a designer somewhere had a brainwave. Instead of the same old dry “user roles” and “market profile segments”, we could create little biographical sketches of our product’s target users to help the product team really get in touch with he people they were designing for. In time, these little mini-bios became known as personas in the trade, and are now a staple of design groups the world over.



Gender: Male
Age: 46
Occupation Sr. Manager
:Location: Bridgeport, Connecticut

“I use my computer enough at work. When I want to kick back, I turn on the game—I don’t fire up a web browser.”


Dave manages a 20-person team and works long hours in his role as a business manager at an insurance firm. As a father of a daughter about to enter college, he is very involved in campus visits and helping his daughter apply for scholarships and financial aid. In his downtime, he is an avid golfer and all-around sports fan.


Graduated Rutgers in 1993 with an M.B,A. emphasizing Global Management


  • Working directly with people. The relationships he has with employees and customers.


  • Form-filling and paperwork
  • Time required to learn new systems and technologies.
  • Not having access to information when he needs it to do his job.


  • Be a knowledgeable resource for his direct reports and customers
  • Spend as little time as possible on “computer stuff” outside of work.
  • Retire in the next 5 years.

It was an interesting take on the old problem of how to get engineers to see the world through the eyes of the people they’re building for. In recent years, many marketing and UX departments have latched onto personas with a vengeance, and I’ve seen everything from small laminated versions plastered to the walls of the Microsoft TV design studio to massive versions occupying entire walls of a major bank’s UX department, complete with larger-than-life photographs.

Recently, I even heard of a tech company that paid actors to come in before the project team and portray the the various personas the UX group had created. The project team was allowed to ask the actors questions about the character’s lives, but strictly prohibited from inquiring about the product or its features. It was apparently hoped that somehow all this would help the project team deduce what it was that they were meant to be building. I never did hear how that worked out for them.

Send in the Clones

As a UX manager, I get to review a lot of designer’s portfolios, and as a result I’ve read over so many personas that I’m beginning to recognize which stock photography library the designer raided for their persona’s “candid” shot. Worse yet, the personas themselves might as well have been issued directly from corporate central casting, complete with perfectly balanced mixes of age, race, and gender.

There’s always the hardworking set of grandparents who love travel but are concerned about retirement… the hard-driving female/black/ethnic minority/all-of-the-above middle manager who’s career-focused and professional… the slightly punky (but not in a scary way) twenty-something who’s cool and artistic…

And then, inevitably, there’s Jane:


Gender: Female
Age: 34
Occupation Account Representative
:Location: Markham, Ontario

“Jessie and Toby keep me running a mile a minute, so it’s hard to find time for myself”


Jane is a single mom raising her two children, Jessie (4) and Toby (5) herself, while balancing a stressful job in the medical products industry. She has a chaotic schedule, and her household budget is frequently stretched. She doesn’t particularly like her job, but appreciates that it pays the mortgage on her three bedroom bungalow located in a modest suburb of Ontario.


AA degree from City College


  • Her children, vacation time.


  • Pressure-filled environments, both online and offline
  • Things and people that waste her time
  • Complicated gadgets and web sites.


  • Achieve work/life balance

Jane (sometimes “Judy”, “Francine”, or “Sophie”) is a single mom bravely raising two adorable moppets who keep her busy. Since her ex started shacking up with that floozy he met at the sales conference, she’s been single-handedly putting food on the table, getting bubble gum out of the kid’s hair, and meeting the demands of her high stress job in a service industry filled with unreasonable customers. She hasn’t slept since last Wednesday.

After what had to be the twentieth portfolio I reviewed featuring some Jane clone, I started to feel like she was my own personal stalker. The rest of the identikit cast of personas was really no different either. It was enough to make we wish I’d see a portfolio where—if only to see if anyone was still paying attention—the designer had really gone for it:



Gender: Male
Age: 38
Occupation Performer/Unemployed
:Location: Newark. New Jersey

“I usually use the computers at the library, but sometimes they have these filters which keep me from finding the things I want”


Yuri grew up in a little town outside Vladivostok where he was abandoned by his parents to a state-run orphanage. At the orphanage, the governess used to beat him mercilessly with a knock-off “Kermie the Frog” doll, leading him to turn to alcohol at the age of five. After placing a highly misleading ad in a “Russian Brides” catalog, he was brought to America and now makes his living as an occasionally employed children’s party entertainer for parents in the Newark area who have not yet discovered Yelp reviews.




  • Children, alcopop, Four Loko


  • Complicated interfaces,
  • Pressure-filled environments and judgmental people.
  • The color green


  • To become more of a “power user”; learn how to use BitTorrent

And let’s face it: unless you’re designing a porn site for inebriated clowns with complicated childhood traumas (Design tip: use big, non-green buttons!), it doesn’t matter which of the above personas you use. Whether it’s busy professionals or twenty-something slackers doing “creative stuff” in their parent’s basements, it’s a pretty good bet that they hate overly complicated interface, like finding stuff easily on their favorite web sites, and don’t particularly care for reading manuals or looking like an idiot in front of technology. So whether you’re designing a shopping site or a new consumer electronics device, it wouldn’t matter which of the above personas you focused on, as there’s almost nothing in any of them that is likely to change your design in any but the most cosmetic senses.

Killers and Adventure Shoppers

If your goal is to actually drive the product design, the secret is to move beyond character sketches and personas and figure out the different “types” your users come in. These are the major personality and usage categories that fundamentally affect how user’s will perceive and use your product or system.

For instance, thinking in the design of role-playing games (RPGs) has focused on between about 4 and 7 major “types” of gamers, including (with credit to Richard Bartle):

  • The Achiever: This is the guy who wants to take on the biggest battles, grab the most loot, and reach the highest character level. Will study strategy guides and scan discussion forums in order to figure out how to take out that demonic overlord guarding the mountain fortress instead of just sneaking around him.
  • The Explorer: The person who has to uncover every secret room, open every hidden chest, explore the outer edges of the game world, and actually reads all those tomes of lore that the monsters have carelessly scattered all over the landscape.
  • The Social Gamer: Enjoys cooperative play, teams, and the interplay with others in the game world. Plays well with others.
  • The Killer: Lives to Pwn N00bs and loot their bodies. Owns a chat set purely so he can talk smack while firing RPGs at the game’s respawn point. Has a gamer score in the tens of thousands.

These types seem to cut across all manner of games, not just violent first person shooters or RPGs. Little Big Planet is the tamest of all conceivable games, where you play the part of a “sackboy” jumping around various platforms in a world that seems entirely created by crafters with too much yarn laying around the house.

Even there, I’ve seen my eight year old daughter get egged on to complete new levels by achieving strangers, engage in friendly banter with other social gamers, as well as encounter elbow-throwing killer-types who’ve shoved her little puppet-character into lava pits so they could grab up all the available prizes in multi-player contests. And to this day, I have no real idea whether “kirein71” who was so nice and helpful is a 9 year old girl from Des Moines or a 44 year old factory worker from Tokyo. The biography doesn’t matter to the game play, but the type surely does.

Similarly, it’s important to identify which of your product’s types you want to prioritize around, as these will directly impact both the features and the interface you present to your users.

If you’re designing for the world of retail, for instance, you would do well to worry what percentage of your customers are GIGOs (“Get In, Get Out”) vs. Adventure Shoppers, amongst other shopping types.

GIGOs (stereotypically, men) may not particularly like shopping at all. When they do shop, they value quick, streamlined browsing systems, prefer a minimum of distracting displays and information, and demand concise checkout. Their favorite stores—both online and offline—let them get in quickly, find what they need, then leave and get on with their day.

Adventure Shoppers, on the other hand, love discovering surprises when they browse the store. Indeed, much of the business model of stores like Costco is based providing Adventure Shoppers with great deals on things they didn’t expect to see when they came in the door (and may never see again if they put off the purchase). Sites like Woot take this even further, providing deep discounts on one item, for one day, forcing its adventure-shopping fans to check back on the site on a daily basis as once the site sells out of a featured item (or the day ends), the opportunity to buy it is lost.

Are you designing the interface for an auto parts store? GIGOs are likely to be the backbone of your business and you should design accordingly. But what if you’re redesigning the interface for a large national clothing retailer? Here you’ll have to pay careful attention to the needs of “Social Shoppers”, “Gappers”, Adventure Shoppers, and more. And while knowing whether you’re designing for “Dave” or “Jane” might inform your color scheme and choices of clip art, knowing that 25% of your business comes from folks who want a friend’s approval before buying a new blouse is likely to have far more profound effects on your site’s feature set and interface.


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