User Personas Are Useless: Here’s What Really Matters

Jack O'Donoghue Avatar


When done right, personas can be powerful tools for creating a shared understanding among product teams and stakeholders.

But when done wrong, personas give us a false sense of security and lead us to confidently make bad decisions.

This article will explore how to go beyond UX personas as a deliverable by focusing on what really matters.

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What Really Matters

An effective UX persona can be a big help in design.

You can use them to create a shared understanding with your extended team and turn user research into a concise summary for reference throughout the project.

But they aren’t the only tool to get the job done; they aren’t a mandatory step in the process.

They’re just a deliverable – an output of user research. And, provided you’ve done your user research, you can share your findings however you please.

So… instead of focusing on personas as a deliverable.

Here are 9 things that really matter:

1. Identifying User Segments

Being able to identify your existing customers, your ideal customer, and having an understanding of all of the different potential customer segments that make up your target audience not only helps you to make better design decisions but it helps the product team to prioritize ideas and helps the marketing team to create campaigns and content that all links back to the needs of real people.

2. Getting to Know Real Users

Once you’ve identified your potential customers, user research helps you go beyond Google Analytics and market research to get first-hand knowledge and experience of user behavior that will provide actionable insight to help make design decisions.

3. Understanding the Customer’s Needs and Pain Points

Understanding needs and pain points helps us to know where to focus and which problems to solve. A fictional character or a user persona that focuses too much on unrelated demographic information can impress people initially. Still, they’ll eventually get left by the wayside as people realize they aren’t valuable.

4. Helping Team Members Understand Your Research Findings

The real value is in the persona creation process itself rather than necessarily in the deliverables you create. If you’ve conducted the research, you’ll have deep insight to drive your product design process, but if it’s locked inside your head, then the research isn’t reaching its full potential. To create additional value, you need to make your findings visible and easy to understand.

5. Improving Communication With the Product Team

The UX Designer and Product Manager should have an equal understanding of customer needs to collaborate on design decisions and communicate effectively throughout the process. You should be on the same page, using the same terminology and have a shared understanding of the target audience. Involving the product team in the research process is an excellent way to nurture this relationship. You can then decide between yourselves what will be the most impactful deliverables to share your understanding with the broader team.

6. Improving Collaboration With Customer Service and Marketing Teams

The UX Team are just one team in the business that relies on having a clear understanding of who the customer is. Most teams in the business can leverage your research to make better decisions in their work. Not only that, but teams like the customer service and marketing teams will likely have their own research that you can leverage too. By aligning with these teams, you can build a more substantial knowledge base, compare your findings, and make improvements.

7. Identifying Areas for Improvement

The number one outcome of any research project is to gather insights that help us to improve the product. If your research doesn’t contribute in some way to improving the product, then it’s unlikely to be a good use of time and resources. A good customer persona should contain information that helps you to identify areas of the product that need to be improved. It gives you a clear enough understanding of the problem area so that you can start to design solutions.

8. Gathering Insights to Inspire New Ideas

Effective user research helps us to identify unmet needs. We can then use this information to develop new products and services that complement the core product. This kind of research usually happens early on during the discovery phase, but every interaction with a customer is an opportunity to learn something new, and the gradual increase in your understanding can sometimes lead to breakthroughs in creative thinking that lead to new ideas and features.

9. Making Informed Design Decisions

We can’t be 100% confident in every decision we make, but we should always be aware of the risk involved in making those decisions. If you’re making a big decision that could impact a lot of people or take a lot of time to develop, user research helps reduce risk by increasing your confidence levels.

People collaborating
Photo by charlesdeluvio

9 Reasons Why Personas Are Ineffective or Fall Flat

1. Replacing Interaction with Real Customers

Personas should not be seen as a replacement for interaction with real customers. Personas are meant to inform design decisions and provide insights about user needs, but they can never accurately replicate the experience of interacting directly with users. Therefore, it’s important that designers and product development teams take time to reach out to customers in order to get direct feedback from them. This will allow each team member to better understand their users and deliver solutions that are tailored to their needs.

2. Lack of Real User Data

If personas lack real user data, they can become ineffective or fall flat. Without information from user interviews, surveys, or other customer interactions, personas can quickly become a superficial construct based on assumptions.

3. Focusing Too Heavily on Demographics

It’s important for personas not to rely solely on demographic information but also includes insights about goals, pain points, behaviors, and preferences. Doing this will create more meaningful and well-rounded personas that accurately reflect the people you are designing for.

4. Making Assumptions About User Behavior

Making assumptions about your users can be a very dangerous mistake when creating products. Assumptions can lead to solutions that are not designed with the user in mind, and as such, these solutions will not meet the needs or desires of the intended audience. This can result in poor user experiences, low engagement rates, and decreased customer satisfaction.

5. Fictionalizing User Data

When we over-fictionalize our user personas, we can create an image of customers that isn’t accurate and leads to bad decisions. When this happens, it gives us a false sense of security in assuming that we know our users when in reality, we don’t.

6. Not Validating Personas with User Data

Personas should be validated against user data to ensure that the model accurately represents actual customers. If you fail to do this, then your team will end up relying on inaccurate assumptions and stereotypes, resulting in poor products and designs that do not meet user needs.

7. Not Well Researched or Updated Regularly

Personas should be an ongoing process, not a one-time exercise. User data is always changing and developing, so personas need to be frequently updated and revised to keep up with changes in user behavior. If proper research isn’t conducted or the proper user data isn’t used then it can result in personas that are inaccurate or not useful.

8. Not Communicated Effectively

Personas should be communicated across the entire organization, not just in design and product teams. If everyone isn’t on the same page when it comes to user personas then it can lead to a disconnect between team members. This can cause product decisions to be based on gut feeling rather than user insights, leading to a poor user experience.

9. Not Representative of All Users

Personas should represent the full range of users that interact with your product, not just a small subset. If you focus too heavily on one demographic or type of user, it can lead to solutions and designs that only meet the needs of a certain group, leaving other users feeling like their needs have been ignored. This can quickly lead to low engagement and customer dissatisfaction.

Risks of Ineffective or Misleading Personas

Misleading user personas give us a false sense of security. They point you in the wrong direction and encourage you to make bad decisions with confidence.

This is dangerous because over time, the more you rely on the personas, the more bad decisions you’ll make and eventually there will be a huge disconnect between the experience you’re intending to create and what customers are actually experiencing.

Here are 7 risks of ineffective personas:

  1. Developing solutions that fail to meet customer needs
  2. Losing credibility and trust with customers due to irrelevant features and poor UX
  3. Wasting resources on solutions that don’t address the true needs of customers
  4. Decreased team buy-in and a loss of appreciation for user research
  5. Difficulty in communicating and presenting research findings to stakeholders
  6. Missed opportunities to gain valuable insights and improve the user experience
  7. Decreased customer satisfaction and retention rates.

Key Takeaways

  • Personas can be an effective tool to turn user research into a concise snapshot of insights that are used to create a shared understanding with the extended team, but they aren’t the only way.
  • Nine things that really matter include identifying user segments, getting to know real users, understanding customer needs and pain points, helping team members understand research findings and improving communication with product teams.
  • Reasons why personas may be ineffective or fall flat include replacing interaction with real customers; lack of real data; focusing too heavily on demographics; making assumptions about user behavior; fictionalizing data; not validating personas against actual data and not communicating effectively across all departments.
  • Risks associated with using ineffective personas can range from developing solutions that fail to meet customer needs through wasted resources on irrelevant features up to decreased satisfaction rates from missed opportunities for improvement in UX design decisions.

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Jack O'Donoghue Avatar