Challenges in Utilising User Personas

‘Mo Personas, ‘Mo Problems

Personas should get off the paper and get into the minds of the stakeholders and teams. Personas should be naturally and organically referenced in every discussion and decision made.

So don’t just create personas; unveil them too!

Not everyone knows why they are useful or how to use them. It is upto the UX Researcher to educate the team, illustrate their effectiveness and solidify their use on the projects. Lead on by example, continue to bring them into meetings, don’t let the personas fizzle out. (after all having personas and believing in them provides 90% of their value)

“ Design isn’t finished until somebody is using it.” — Brenda Laurel, PhD, Independent Scholar

Personas are very versatile! You can use them for different purposes and in different ways. Incorporating user personas into a design process can make designing itself more rewarding.

I learned that personas, though important, are never used in isolation, but rather are implemented in conjunction with other processes, concepts and methods that support and augment their use. They are helpful throughout the entire product development phase: from deciding on which features to have in a prototype, to evaluating the end product. When combined with additional user experience design methods, such as usability testing and task analyses, personas are vital to launching a useful and usable solution.

Well-defined personas will help describe the individuals who use your product, which is essential to the overall value proposition; also enable to efficiently identify and communicate user needs. They also help with strategising and making smart design decisions.

Personas are one of the most abstract components in the very analytical discipline that is UX. Because of their abstract nature, personas have been misunderstood and misused over the years. While they are easy to understand conceptually, mastering their use with finesse and precision would take me many months.

Personas are created and often fail for a number of reasons. In order for stakeholders to use personas, they have to believe in them, feel invested, and have ownership over them. Remember, Rekha, Priya and Rahul? These were Personas that weren’t just created and then forgotten — they were living, breathing characters that permeated all that we did.

We read in the previous article How To Make Effective User Personas right from getting a budget from the stakeholders for making the personas to finally making the stakeholders use the personas, there are a number of challenges at different levels of different type and severity in the process, which we will be discussing/sharing with you majorly in this last article of Persona series.

Challenges Proposing or Defining User Personas

  1. 📊 Project Timelines & Budgets is the very first challenge. It can be hard to even get started if you can’t get buy-in for a persona effort from the decision makers. In these situations, it is beneficial to think of personas and present them as an alignment tool rather than a research deliverable.
  2. 🕰 Writing the User Personas too Early: At the beginning of a new product, you may feel you already have a pretty good idea of what your users look like, particularly if you have an existing product in the market. Personas should not be made based on personal opinions or assumptions, but created as a realistic character based on facts. Only when you begin to see these trends emerging from your research can you start to distill these general attributes. This is why you can’t start writing them at the very beginning of the process — you simply don’t yet know enough to make your personas reflect your actual users.
  3. 🔗 Defining the Right User Personas: In one of our projects, user personas were defined based on personnel designations. We could have created 4 different persona types; each having changed the needs and challenges. But we don’t create as many different personas, because the main purpose is to idealise the picture of the user as a whole, keeping the product in focus. Analysis from the user study would also show how the nature of work, education background or exposure to the world could affect the feature and functions of the product rather than the other factors. Although it is possible to make very specific and very different personas, it is necessary to keep them interlinked, the way they are in the product system.
  4. ♾ Too Specific, Too many: As you get into your user research, you’ll possibly fall into the trap of making your personas too specific, with the result that you end up with dozens of different personas. Always aim to have not more than five user personas (for a project/product) with one designated as your most important / Core user.
  5. Differentiating User Personas from Marketing Personas: Although both are about understanding the user better, the key difference is the needs of users vs buyers. Sometimes, the user and buyer are the same person, but even then, they’re wearing different metaphorical hats. Therefore it is best to keep user and buyer personas separate, which means the questioning for them should ideally be done separately also.

Challenges Making User Personas

  1. 📲 Connecting with the User : Many times, reasons like budgets, timelines, distances and even pandemics, prevent us from meeting our users. In such times, one of the only ways to conduct a user study remotely is either through a voice or video call. While poor network connectivity is the first road block, the major drawback is being unable to connect and empathising with the user since it’s impossible to fully observe them in their environment and gather qualitative data to understand specific problems they encounter when using the product.
  2. 🗣 Conversing with the User: If you’re lucky enough to connect with the user, the next challenge is conversing with them. In a country like India, interacting with people from different communities comes with a huge language barrier and with people of varied age groups. The Researcher’s job is to find a way to communicate with users speaking different languages, building a rapport with kindergarten kids and even explaining the intention of the interview to a farmer…and get answers to the big questions you’re holding.
  3. 👩🏻‍🏫 Understanding the User: Often, when you ask your team to describe what a user persona is and what information it typically includes, you’d hear - “descriptions of type of user with a picture, a little backstory, their age and other demographics, hobbies and interests, IT literacy” etc. Understanding the tactile side of users is much easier than bringing out the feelings and emotions is difficult but is extremely relevant to your product. Concentrate on how the users experience or solve the problem your product is meant to be solving, rather than adding too many personal details.
  4. ⎘ Consistency between Personas (of same brand/client): Sticking to the (same) defined layout/template (by the UI/Graphic Designer) for multiple personas of same project raises trivial issues like word limit, image size, quantity, categories etc. Previously, we discussed must have categories and content in the user personas, no matter the type of user; therefore the layout and design of a persona also more or less stays the same. Maintaining this consistency always, with information adding and reducing project to project, or sometimes persona to person can be to be a challenge.
  5. 🤝 Creating User Personas in silo: Creating in silo or with a person not part of the project, only to then impose it on other team members is the biggest barrier to the utilisation of user personas. This results in them being used like a piece of artwork pinned to the office wall, to admire once in a while. In order for people to believe in them, feel them, own them, people need to be involved in the process of making it. To avoid this pitfall, you must include the persona end users in the process of creating personas.

“It’s easy to get stuck in a design bubble and lose sight of who you are designing for. Throughout the process, remember to take a moment to step back and review your progress compared to the user goals. Ask yourself if what you’ve designed so far does indeed behave like a likeable person. Is it respectful of the user’s objectives? Is it generous and helpful in guiding them through their journey?”

— Alan Cooper, Creator of Personas

A well defined persona should reflect the goal and the scope of work it is meant to impact. Otherwise it’s a square peg in a round hole. You want personas to be naturally and organically referenced in every discussion and decision that is made. So don’t just create personas, unveil them and call it a day! After all, having personas and believing in them provides 90% of their value.

BRND Studio Persona Mapping, 2015

BRND Studio uses an integrated framework of Design Thinking and Human-Centred Design to build innovative solutions and solve complex, ambiguous problems.