Sunday, October 16, 2005
why personas don't gell
There is no common definition of what comprises a persona. Here is my own, non-exhaustive list of persona attributes that occurred to me today. You may dismiss some, or more likely, have more of your own to add. Users can be different in many ways:
- with technology (existing or analogous, from virgin to novice learner to uncomfortable straggler to power user)
- with a subject domain (what they know about investing, or airfare prices, or whatever);
- life experiences (stage of life, encounters with significant events or circumstances)
- socialability (e.g., willingness to ask for help, independence);
- anxiety (toward technology, concept of self efficacy);
- cognitive style (e.g., detailed oriented or not);
- career ambition;
- social competitiveness;
- expectations (e.g., about ease of technology, complexity of a subject);
- helpfulness (willingness to collaborate or share information)
- job roles (e.g., functional speciality, multifunctional responsibilities);
- social roles (may be context dependent);
- family roles;
- authority/discretion in various situations;
- first-order goals (amount of time willing to spend, immediate demands of the situation);
- second-order goals (instrumental accomplishments, KPIs, psychic/hedonic rewards, financial payoffs)
Even this short list highlights how many variables can exist within a user. These variables may be interrelated. Experience can affect motivation, and vice versa. Motivation can affect goals, and so on. But just because factors can be interrelated doesn't mean they occur together in predictable ways. Sometimes they do: teenagers are likely to have little experience with investing and also have a low motivation to worry about retirement. But my experience has been that opportunities for such stereotyping is limited, and is often not even interesting.
People are complex, and becoming more complex all the time. Imagine a persona for an employee in an organization. Perhaps twenty years ago one could safely make stereotypes about certain employees. Worker responsibilities were clearly defined, workers were recruited from homogeneous pool of applicants, and people's experience was safely defined by the number of years they had at a company. Today, workers may be doing any number of tasks (roles?), have had few or many jobs previously (which could affect motivation or experience any number of ways), be on short term contract (motivation?), be of an indeterminate age (experience?), and not really be molded by the company culture they operate in (personality?). A similar blurring of identity is evident in personal lives as well.
There are simply too many variables to consider in personas to allow them to cluster around five or six personas in a tidy fashion. (Most people consider five or six the maximum number of personas that can be comprehended easily -- unless you are into Dostoyevsky.) Another problem: two personas may be nearly identical, except for a key difference on one variable. By discussing the persona as a "whole person" (even if fictional), it becomes difficult to see the one difference between two people when the discussion is about the person instead of the attribute. The temptation exists to try to make the two people different in other ways, to exaggerate their difference.
I can see uses for personas, and I have been told by others they have had success using them. But I urge restraint. The technique can gained popularity without much critical examination.