We know personas are controversial.
Consumers are increasingly demanding to be seen as individuals. People’s buying situations change faster than our research can update. Even well-crafted personas take some buy-in before they're used. And in a user-centered research world—we’re more and more reluctant to box anyone in.
But all that aside, when done right, personas are a great resource. They can massively improve how well your product and marketing teams know your users. And they can be a gamechanger for how your company empathizes and innovates.
Here are 9 common mistakes we see in persona development—and a few straightforward fixes you can rely on to make to impact.
1. You have an overwhelming amount of personas.
Creating a long list of personas is an understandable impulse for researchers. After meeting and empathizing with so many individuals, it’s hard to reduce them to just a handful of types.
But personas exist to simplify a complex world. Having too many undermines their usefulness. When you have a dozen personas, it’s hard to keep each one top of mind. The lines between them start to blur. It becomes harder to get a handle on meaningful differences.
Sticking to a reasonable number of personas (5-8 is a good general ballpark) ensures that they’ll serve their purpose: to reduce complexity and serve as a helpful decision-making tool.
2. Your personas aren’t tied to real people.
It sounds obvious, but our meaningful social relationships are with real humans—not with one-dimensional, hypothetical types.
The more your personas are enriched by complex personalities and experiences, the more empathy they’ll generate among stakeholders.
One way to achieve this is to tie personas to real people. Use a participant (under a pseudonym if needed) as the basis for each persona. Present video, pictures, and quotations from an actual person to ensure that personas feel fully fleshed-out.
3. Your personas feel a bit like caricatures.
No matter how nuanced they start out, personas can easily start to feel like tropes: the bro, the shopaholic, the wellness enthusiast, the coffee geek, etc. Once that happens, it’s a lot harder to feel empathy for them as human beings.
Like it or not, most of these caricatures carry a lot of negative baggage; they bear stereotypes that have nothing to do with the persona you want to create. Personas should feel familiar, like people we can understand, and to some extent, predict. But they shouldn’t feel so predictable that we’re holding back an eye roll.
4. You’ve differentiated by default rather than by design.
Greg loves a certain feature, so that means Sally rarely uses it. If Sarah is a social butterfly who uses a product while out with her friends, George must be an introvert who uses it at home, alone. But just like real people, personas aren’t always going to be opposites.
Instead, try to describe the real essence of each persona. Nail down what truly defines Sally—not just what makes her different from George. There can, and probably will, be some overlap between one persona and another. When personas seem too strongly differentiated, it’s worth a gut check. The reality is probably a lot more complex.
5. Your personas haven’t been designed for a specific purpose.
Personas can be used to inform decisions ranging from product design, to marketing, to customer support. But they’re most useful when they’re geared toward a specific purpose, and not one-size-fits-all.
Design teams will know what to do with personas that describe how a product or feature is used. And marketers will have a good chance of putting personas to good use when those they describe receptivity to certain types of messaging. Personas that are too broad (“users in general”) or that are applied beyond their intended purpose, are often less relevant and helpful.
6. Your presentation could use some updating.
When sharing personas out, think beyond the deck. Consider presenting work in formats more engaging than traditional slides. Video reels and trailers draw stakeholders in; they let living, breathing users tell their story in their own words. And visual displays like posters, collages, or even cardboard cutouts keep personas in plain view; it’s the opposite of “out of sight, out of mind.”
7. The people who need personas, aren’t educated on how they work.
Set aside some time to offer workshops and activities for persona familiarization. Help stakeholders get to know your personas by creating interactive activities. Tell stories and answer “what ifs” about them.
We learn best when information is presented in multiple contexts and formats, so keep workshops short and distributed over time, with varied activities, rather than concentrated into one long rollout meeting.
8. Your personas are stagnant.
Personas should be a living resource—and developing them should be just the beginning. Facilitate ongoing research by creating participant communities for each persona. Then, tap them for follow-up research, or to answer a few follow-up questions that inform marketing or product decisions.
9. Your stakeholders have unrealistic expectations for what personas can do.
Know the limits of personas, and educate key stakeholders on what those limits are. While personas are an incredibly useful tool, they aren’t the right approach for every product or decision.
Sometimes, the same person has very different needs or experiences from moment to moment. Take social media, for example. Sometimes, we’re bonding with friends and family. Sometimes, we’re showing off our cute pets or gorgeous travel destinations. Sometimes we’re sharing major life updates. User needs, mindsets, or jobs to be done can be better frameworks for cases like these.
Summing it up:
Personas done right are an investment, but they’re a worthwhile one. Simplifying and humanizing your user base can lead to a company-wide shift, and can make user-centric approaches more digestible across departments.