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First as a UX Designer: Are user personas helpful?
First as a UX Designer: Are user personas helpful?
Vy Hoang
Design Team
User Research.
UX Design.
Navigating the UX design landscape, I've pondered the real worth of user personas. Drawing from my journey, I argue for a nuanced, flexible approach, emphasizing empathy and creativity over strict adherence to templates.
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User personas: an aspect of UX design that sparks varied opinions. For someone like me, who entered the industry two years ago, completed a UX boot camp, and worked on three client projects, I'm still in the process of determining whether this approach is outdated. Firstly, a user persona serves as a fictional portrayal of your ideal user or customer. Researchers and designers use this technique to define the audience for their products. This concept aligns with the fundamentals of product development, emphasizing the importance of understanding the end users and their specific requirements. It offers valuable insights into the issues to be addressed, the essential features to include, and what won't be effective.

User personas vs. Market personas

Now, what makes up a user persona? From my knowledge, a user persona is made up of the target’s goals, needs, motivations, and frustrations. The idea behind this is to help a researcher or designer get a better understanding of the user’s goal and empathize with them. Along with the four elements I described before, these user personas also include demographic-based descriptions like age, place of residence, etc. This is to help bring the fictional character to life.

A user persona is very similar to a market persona. Which is where the line between the two gets a bit blurred. A market persona is a fictional character created by a marketer to represent a certain demographic in their target audience. The biggest difference between the two is that user personas are a bit more detailed and represent a type of user within the target audience. Whereas market personas focus on a more broad market or customer group.

So why am I talking about market personas? Well, through my experience, I find that a lot of user personas are either built more like market personas or too detailed only to be catered to a select few users. The question is now, are user personas outdated? An argument I’ve seen online is that they can be overgeneralized. This ties us back to market personas, that they are based on too much demographic and psychological data that makes it difficult to capture the traits of users in a specific group. But the counter-argument to that is that user personas are too detailed and descriptive and it wouldn't be able to encapsulate a wider group.

No user persona?

The scope of the project I worked on necessitated the complete process. We had to conduct user research and use it to design the final product, and the timeline stretched over approximately 8 to 10 months. The project was structured with multiple teams, each comprising a designer, a product manager, and a team of engineers. Each team had its own set of responsibilities based on the features they were developing. To assist with research efforts, a single researcher was available, whom all designers and product managers relied on.

As this was my first project with this client, I was uncertain about the workflow. To kick things off, I reached out to the researcher to help me create a user interview script and my product manager to recruit participants. After some initial preparations, we were ready to proceed. We successfully conducted the interviews and gathered all the data. At this point, I followed the researcher's guidance on how to handle the data. To my surprise, we decided to skip the step of creating user personas. At that time, I believed that using user personas was a logical and essential aspect of the project. The product we were designing catered to a broad spectrum of users, making it challenging for me to discern their specific needs. I couldn't afford to waste time due to the project's timeline. However, I was also repeatedly reminded of the importance of this step, and I couldn't let go of the idea of not creating user personas for this project.

School and the UX World

Having balanced both school and work at the same time, I've gained insights into the contrasting nature of these experiences. In the academic setting, the process typically involves conducting research, analysis, creating personas, and progressing through defined steps until completion. However, the real-world scenario doesn't strictly follow this linear approach. To my surprise, not every step of the design process is invariably utilized.

I used to believe that each step in the process was foolproof, but in practice, it's crucial to discern when to apply a particular step or method. Over time, with hands-on experience in the professional realm, I've come to realize that various factors come into play. Project timelines, for instance, can significantly impact the process. When time is limited, we must make informed decisions about which steps to skip and which ones to prioritize.

With practical experience, I believe I can develop the skills to navigate these decisions effectively. While school provides a solid foundation in UX fundamentals, applying them in real-world situations requires an understanding and adaptability.

Now what do I think?

I believe I can confidently state that I have gained a better understanding of the question being posed: Are user personas necessary? While user personas are theoretically beneficial, their necessity depends greatly on the project's scope and timeline. It's not a question I can simply look up and expect a definitive answer to. Based on my observations, the primary factor influencing the utility of user personas is the approach used to create them. This was not a concept covered in my UX boot camp course; instead, we were provided with a template to fill out, which I can understand some may view as stereotypical. My deeper insights came from practical experience and studying how other professionals employ them.

Why should we confine ourselves to using a template and imposing limitations on the number of personas for a project? It ultimately falls to the designer's judgment and what feels most appropriate. As designers, we must ask all the necessary questions to shape the product and tailor our user personas accordingly. Who are our users? What are their needs, preferences, and dislikes? How can we enhance the user experience for them?

Published on February 5, 2024

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