The Persona is Dead, Long Live the Person

First, let me go on record as saying up to this point, I’ve been a fan of personas. In my past marketing and usability work, I used personas extensively as a tool. But I’m definitely aware that not everyone is equally enamored with personas. And I also understand why.

Personas, like any tool, can be used both correctly and incorrectly. When used correctly, they can help bridge the gap between the left brain and the right brain. They live in the middle ground between instinct and intellectualism. They provide a human face to raw data.

But it’s just this bridging quality that tends to lead to abuse. On the instinct side, personas are often used as a short cut to avoid quantitative rigor. Data driven people typically hate personas for this reason. Often, personas end up as fluffy documents and life sized cardboard cutouts with no real purpose. It seems like a sloppy way to run things.

On the intellectual side, because quant people distrust personas, they also leave themselves squarely on data side of the marketing divide. They can understand numbers – people not so much. This is where personas can shine. At their best, they give you a conceptual container with a human face to put data into. It provides a richer but less precise context that allows you to identify, understand and play out potential behaviors that data alone may not pinpoint.

As I said, because personas are intended as a bridging tool, they often remain stranded in no man’s land. To use them effectively, the practitioner should feel comfortable living in this gap between quant and qual. Too far one way or the other and it’s a pretty safe bet that personas will either be used incorrectly or be discarded entirely.

Because of this potential for abuse, maybe it’s time we threw personas in the trash bin. I suspect they may be doing more harm than good to the practice of marketing. Even at their best, personas were meant as a more empathetic tool to allow you to thing through interactions with a real live person in mind. But in order to make personas play nice with real data, you have to be very diligent about continually refining your personas based on that data. Personas were never intended to be placed on a shelf. But all too often, this is exactly what happens. Usually, personas are a poor and artificial proxy for real human behaviors. And this is why they typically do more harm than good.

The holy grail of marketing would be to somehow give real time data a human face. If we could find a way to bridge left brain logic and right brain empathy in real time to discover insights that were grounded in data but centered in the context of a real person’s behaviors, marketing would take a huge leap forward. The technology is getting tantalizingly close to this now. It’s certainly close enough that it’s preferable to the much abused persona. If – and this is a huge if – personas were used absolutely correctly they can still add value. But I suspect that too much effort is spent on personas that end up as documents on a shelf and pretty graphics. Perhaps that effort would be better spent trying to find the sweet spot between data and human insights.

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