The Problem With Personas & How We Can Fix It

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The idea of creating and using personas to help create a better user experience and engagement was birthed in the software industry 30 years ago. Computer software was clunky, hard to use, and had a terrible user experience. Allen Cooper, a software inventor and architectural consultant, interviewed actual users and used the information and feedback they gave him to help shape and create more user-friendly software. The persona was born. Over the years personas have become the foundation of good development not just in the software industry, but in the design and marketing worlds as well. While I believe they are essential to success, the way many develop personas is outdated.

Context is the key to effective communication. It sets the tone and the basis for understanding what is actually being said. Good marketing and design start with good communication. It’s the duty of the communicator to set the context and tone of the message in a way that makes it more palatable for the end user. Persona development is key in helping marketers and designers create a better context for their message.

The Problem

Because of the lack of real research during the persona development process, many questioned the effectiveness of personas. If we are to create personas that are actually useful and user-driven we must be willing to do the hard work. This means not settling for assumptions and going deeper than the surface level.

Persona development involves dissecting and breaking down intrinsic and extrinsic data. While the hard data such as demographics, job titles, and geographic location are easy to collect, it’s the intrinsic data that is hard to collect and make use of. Just having one or two phone calls with a current or potential user isn’t going to give you the information you need.

Personas are supposed to be as close a representation of your ideal client or users as possible. When interviewing people we have to remember one thing, they are human. While we hope they would give us authentic answers, an interview rarely produces 100% accurate results. What people say and what they do are usually very different. So trusting your interviewees to give you all the info you need is a dangerous assumption.

The Fix

People are emotionally driven creatures. We base much of our decision-making on how we will feel after making the decision. This is true for both intellectual and relational decision-making.  The more we uncover the emotional motivation for why our personas do what they do, the better we can understand their needs. Developing empathy skills is crucial for marketers, designers, and researchers.

One practical way to hone your empathy skills is to learn how to listen. Listening is not about waiting your turn to ask another question or make a comment. Listening is about stopping, hearing, and trying to understand the other person’s point of view. As Zeno of Citium said, “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” When you listen more, people tell you more. It shows you value what they say and are interested in them. This allows them to open up and tell you the truth.

As I stated above, what people say and what people do are usually very different. This doesn’t mean we should forgo the interview process during persona creation. It just means we shouldn’t necessarily take our interviewee at their word. Today we have some amazing software that can help compare what people say and what they do online. This will help us find the intersection where their words and actions come together. When you find this, you are on the right track. Here is a list of a few of my favorite tools.

  • Hotjar: Hotjar is a heat mapping tool. It gives you an understanding of how your user naturally uses your site. You can even set up recording and watch how users browsed your site and content.
  • BrightInfo: Brightinfo is a personalized marketing platform. Where it’s really helpful in persona development and understanding users is in the analytics. Using the data you can see where your users are similar in their likes and interests.
  • HubSpot:  HubSpot is mostly known for marketing automation, but it also helps you understand your users. The timeline tools that show how an individual contact has journeyed through your funnel is very insightful. While the full software is an investment, they are getting ready to release a free version. Learn more here.
  • Google Analytics: Google Analytics is a great tool. The demographics, interest, and behavior data are very helpful in better understanding your users. Best part, it’s free!

Traditional marketing segmentation and persona creation focused a lot more on demographics than psychographics. The internet has really made the world a lot smaller. This has blurred a lot of the traditional regional demographics, making them less reliable. If we are to understand our persona’s real motivation, we must understand why they do what they do. This is where psychographics comes in. Personality profiling using Myers Briggs is a great tool, as is the Four Temperaments Assessment. These assessments will give you a clearer picture of the “why” behind your users’ actions.

Personas are extremely important for marketing, advertising, and UX design. As the world evolves and changes, so must the processes. We cannot rely on outdated methods to deliver the same results. If we are truly going to be able to effectively reach our audience and help our customers engage, we must get to know them on an emotional level. Below is a link to our updated buyer persona template. It is designed to help you go deeper in your persona development. Check it out and let me know what you think!

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