While personas have been a very useful tool in the human centred design process, they need to evolve. UX designers are creating elegant user personas that include a lot of details that are irrelevant to the work at hand. This reduces the value that user personas have. Often they also leave out a lot of contextual details and behaviours that detail the problems and frustrations that users may have. Without these critical details and context, personas are often irrelevant. They do not help designers get any closer to achieving their main goal, which is to help design teams feel closer to the people for whom they are solving problems.
Therefore what designers need now is an alternative framework for creating personas, one which directs designers towards better understanding, empathy and inclusion.
Why do we need alternatives to User Personas?
The problem with user personas is that they lack relevance. They tend to lead design teams towards confusion and misdirection. Personas have long been used as a tool in human centred design and provided a gateway into understanding how users behave, and they also provide an opportunity to think through how products and services can be both inclusive and equitable.
However the way user personas are created now can often reinforce stereotypes and lack real perspective about users and their problems. They are often “template-personas” that are reused everywhere and thus could mislead design teams and block them from the benefits that user personas provide.
When user personas are oversimplified, they provide very little value to UX teams. When a deliverable provides so little value, it causes UX teams to question whether its even worth using.
Here’s how User Personas are causing confusion for UX teams
– Lack of Clarity
There is a lack of clarity on why we are using personas, which leads to a stronger focus on visuals rather than concrete information. Thus they are great as a marketing tool, but less useful for problem solving. While intended for use by design teams, personas are now being used more as deliverables. Most user personas lack key details to help team members who were not part of the research team truly understand the problems this user faces.
– Surface Level Information
User personas overtly focus on demographic details. This encourages only a surface level understanding of human behaviour that can lead to a lot of biased stereotypes based on gender, ethnicity, age and economic status.These stereotypes create a very generalised belief about a group of people.
However for UX teams to truly know their users, they need to dig below the surface for problems that need to be solved.
– Abandoned in the Next Design Stages
Personas provide very little value and hence are discontinued from use in the design process as a tool for UX teams because they do not help in making future decisions. However personas should be used to help determine how to create user flows, determine relevant features and even create interactions.
Alternatives to User Personas
– User Cards
User cards can be used as an alternative to outdated, user persona templates. Here each card represents one type of user, supported by a quote and a list of core needs. The advantages of user cards are that they are quick to produce and give a snapshot of the most important things that UX teams need to consider for each user type.
These user cards can be focused on validated user needs across a unique group of users. To make them even more effective, design teams need to ensure that the insights are memorable and human through the use of composite quotes.
2. Switching Forces Framework
The switching forces framework is a new way of mapping user data. It focuses more on how an organisation can use the insights that the UX team has collected. User needs, motivations and behaviours are organised around questions like,
- How do we encourage people to use a new product/service (remove pains, create gains)
- How do we reduce blockers to using a new product/service (break habits, remove anxieties)?
It focuses the spotlight on underlying user needs supported by insights using journey maps, show and tells and engaging research findings using quotes and videos to back up the analysis.
User needs are presented using 2 axes; motivation, and the urgency of the issue. The grid enables UX teams to keep underlying user needs at the centre of decisions. And by providing solutions that covered the extremes, they can also cover everything in between.
The reason this approach works so well is because user needs largely remain the same but the ays in which they are provided for will develop over time. The matrix keeps the focus on user goals and provides space for teams to identify knowledge gaps to keep their services up to date and fit for purpose.
3. Customer Profile
In the customer profile you write jobs, pains and gains. Basically: what your customer wants to achieve, what stops him from doing it and what are the benefits on achieving the ‘job’. What makes this a very powerful tool is the connection to other tools by Strategyzer: the value-proposition-canvas and the business-model-canvas. The tool is simple to understand in theory, but complex to use in practice. A customer profile visualises a mix of business decisions and research: you don’t put all jobs, pains and gains you found in the profile, you make a choice which ones are relevant for your business. As such it’s very different from the idea of personas.
User personas are a valuable tool for design teams to better understand the users they are solving problems for, but many examples fall short and do not solve for they purpose they are created for. A new framework is needed to help UX teams to combat their reactive and implicit biases about groups of people. Personas need to help teams fully empathise with users and get inside their heads. So this framework should focus on storytelling over aesthetics, relevance over demographics, and contextual details over stereotypes. Design teams have a responsibility to guard against bias and focus on inclusion, and personas are an important part of that effort.