Rethinking Personas for Small Business, Part 1: Signal, Not Stratification

Forgive me Father

As a ux professional, I have a confession to make. I hate personas. Hate them.

I hate them because they’re stupid. They’re made up. They’re improperly applied. And they are fake. And stupid. Aargh! I hate them. So. Much.

I think we can all agree those are good reasons.

Did I mention they’re stupid?


I hate them because they are terrible at what they do.

I think [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]the job of ux is to bring clarity to the situation[/highlight]. We amplify signal and cut out the noise.

That is supposed to be the purpose of personas. They help us understand the wants and needs of the various customers for a product or service.

But in practice, I’ve only found them to muddy the waters. They do the exact opposite of their intent and create useless data about minutia instead of providing insight into how best to build (or rebuild) a website.

That being said, what are the chances that everybody else – super smart people who I look up to professionally – who “get” personas are wrong and somehow I’ve seen the light? Not great. But before I go full-Rambo on personas (and by full Rambo I mean “get seriously emotionally destabled and then blow something up violently all while wearing a tight leather necklace around my tree stump of a neck”), let’s check with teh Interwebz and see what that series of tubes has to say on the topic.

Persona Love

As it turns out, some people just love personas.

“Personas are great. No seriously, they are the best thing since sliced bread. I can’t think of any project involving UX that doesn’t benefit from the addition of good old personas.” –

“Personas: The Foundation of a Great User Experience” –

“Everyone that I’ve introduced them to recently, as part of the overall UX process, seems to have a negative association with them that is usually based upon some Marketing driven personas that they’ve been exposed to previously and have seen little value in. So in this 2-part piece, here’s how I explain the how they are created and differences in how they are used.” –

Personas Explained

Go on… I’m listening.

Hip me to some shit! I mean, don’t make me lace these boots up and put a bandana on, while well oiled

In the article from the above quote, Ben Melbourne breaks down personas into three types. It’s good stuff. I’ve not seen this before. He takes this info from Wikipedia.

Now my earballs are all perked up! Automatically I can see that to this point I’ve been conceiving of personas as marketing personas. When personas are described in terms of user personas – defining the goals and behavior of users – it seems like they can be a force for good.

By the way, this is Ben Melbourne. We both just learned something from this guy.

Now do you see why it was important to bring it up? (And no, I didn’t Photoshop that…)

He goes on to state the two roles of ux personas in a project:

  1. Represent the findings of research into user behaviours.
  2. Provide guidance on decisions in the design and development process.

It’s about this time that I’m starting to feel the wheels come off.

And it’s not just because these roles are so mushy.

I’m sorry, I’m still not convinced

I thought the well coiffed Ben Melbourne had me going there. He was going to talk me into the value of personas. But he lost me in one paragraph.

This paragraph ends up in every article on personas. It’s the moment that personas go from a good idea to a goddamn hand-holding kumbaya moment for the ux team.

A well-researched and constructed persona almost becomes another member of the team. Once everyone starts referring to a persona by name it can feel like they are there in the room with you, providing direction about what they would do, their behaviours, mental models and goals when undertaking specific tasks.

[highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]What. The fuck.[/highlight]


Seriously. What small business person has so many types of customers that it’s necessary to break their specific goals down and then assign them a human name?

I’m asking. Do you do this? Has anybody you’ve ever met done this? If so, tell me in the comments. I want to talk to them. Put ’em on the podcast because I don’t see it. I’m reflecting on my clients and I can’t see how giving a goal a human name is in anyway anything other than laughable.

I am Jack's checkout process.

There’s A Better Way

When you were growing up and especially when you’re a teenager you hear this phrase a lot, “just be yourself”.

If you were anything like me that statement seemed totally loaded. As a teenager, how many of us knew who we were? I remember at the time trying to hurry up and grow into an adult. “Be yourself” rang about as true as “you can be anything you want to be”. It was so grandiose as to be permanently elusive.

But, the older you get, the more that phrase starts to make sense. We do have ways of behaving that we consider to be our core self. And the advice “just be yourself” is to embrace that person and to wholly realize it through your actions.

[highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]That’s what “just be yourself” means. It means to be the most you that you can be.[/highlight]

What’s This Have To Do With Personas?

I’m glad you asked.

Personas make you start by asking, “Who are the people that are using my site and what do they want?” – or in dating speak “How can I get her to like me!?”

It’s not that that’s a bad question, it’s that it’s in the wrong place. You’re making the customer the center of attention. But they’re not. At this stage of the game, you are.

Here, let me highlight that for you: [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]You’re the center of attention.[/highlight]

Or to break it down in dating-speak again: “She’s got to feel you before you can feel her.”

Knowing this, it’s your responsibility to figure out what it is that you do. And if you’re just now figuring this out when it’s time to design a website, I think you did your business plan wrong.

The proper place for personas

It’s not that personas are themselves bad. It’s that they’re used in the wrong place. They’re typically used way too late in the process. Personas are helpful to businesses when defining a product or service. They help you define who you are. But that isn’t to be mistaken with the idea that you should talk to each of those people individually on your website.

Crazy talk? We’ll see.

Better than personas: Know Thyself

[highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]The guiding question isn’t “What do my users want?”, it’s “Who am I?”.[/highlight]

If you can answer that question completely and realize it completely then you’ll be 1000x further down the road than by meeting the needs of a bunch of made up representations of your customer base.

I know this sounds a bit heretical in the context of a website that’s built on user testing but it’s the truth.

The best way to build the optimal website is the same as the best way to have an optimal life:

[highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]KNOW THYSELF[/highlight]

This is step 1 in the process.  This is business 101 stuff right here.  You have to know who you are.

That is the signal. That is what you have to project.

The argument for personas is that different types of customers will be more receptive to that signal if it’s modified in a way to better suit them. And I’m sure that on some level this is true. But [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]the collective stratification of the signal into various sub-frequencies has an overall deleterious effect on the main message.[/highlight] And in the end, rather than coming across as talking everybody’s language, the message comes across as wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed, and frankly, confusing.

That’s not to say that personas can’t be done well. I’ve just never seen the projects where they were used successfully.  If you have any examples, hit me up in the comments. I’d love to see them.

Rather than argue for or against personas, really, [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]I’m in favor of presenting a strong signal.[/highlight] I believe that most products sell themselves with one idea.

Does Coke use personas? Because EVERYBODY drinks Coke but all I can every think about when visualizing their marketing is either their bottle shape or that damn polar bear.

And don’t lie. You know you do too. But why not throw some baby seals and walruses in there as well? Surely there’s a persona that represents some demographic that drinks Coke that prefers those animals to polar bears.

I’d argue that it’s because the polar bear is a powerful enough signal to stand on its own across personas. Enough people go “aww” when they see that polar bear that adding in other animals (or messages) would only be distracting.

Wrapping it up

At the end of the day, personas suggest that message clarity is achieved by fracturing the message into small, more targeted messages.

I am leery of this.

I grew up working in the music business and they learned one lesson really good: You’re in the business of making hits. Appeal to the widest audience.

I believe this is a fundamental truth. [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]There will always be a wide base appeal for how to talk about your product or service. [/highlight] Even when the product is niche – how to get your customers to buy it on a website is not. Everybody looks for the same attributes: credibility, authority, trustworthiness, affordability, relevance and so forth.

That’s where I believe [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]designers should spend their time: honing those messages into a big fat signal that comes across loud-and-clear[/highlight].

That beats the stratification-by-personas any day.

Next Time

Next time we’ll look at how using personas can get you in trouble and how knowing thyself can rescue you from persona hell.

3 comments on “Rethinking Personas for Small Business, Part 1: Signal, Not Stratification

  1. Hi Ben, thanks for the review and the thoughts on my post. It’s always good to hear a different perspective from someone. Pelase allow me to continue the discussion.

    I can’t say that I share you’re complete dislike for personas, however I definitely share some hesitations about the value of their use lots of situations – and Small Business is one of those.

    Personas, or any other UX tools that communicate user needs, are a way bring some focus back on to the target audience. In larger companies direct contact between the people building products (i.e. Product development teams) and their target audience is usually lost in a world of bureaucracy and head offices.

    Unfortunately as companies have become bigger and bigger over the years, so has this gap between their internal employees and their real world customers. If you’re working in a company that is still small enough to have readily available access to people who are using your product on a day-to-day basis (i.s. Small Businesses), then stop wasting your time creating pretty documents and get out there and talk to them on a regular basis.

    I totally agree that personas are commonly a badly used tool. At the same time, personas are just one of many tools for bridging this gap between companies and their users. There are situations where they are highly effective, but there are also many more situations where there are far more effective and efficient options in UX toolbox. Such as simply taking the team out to see observe research in person rather than waiting for the UXer to write up the findings.

    In my post I outlined the traditional thorough, research-driven approach. If someone can justify or needs to spend the time and effort required to go through that process then that is their decision to make, but it definietly shouldn’t be the automatic choice and it’s rarely mine. Pick a different tool and or just do them in a lightweight way (which I also talked about). Hell, go talk to one person you feel is representative of your audience and write up what you heard from them in a persona format. If your target audience is everyone then pick another tool to understand how people will use your product or just use your shithot design skills to design the product.

    On your point of appealing to the broad audience, one thing that personas do well is to help you narrow your focus on one type of person, not divide your message between several. While you might create a set of 4 or 5+ different personas, in practice you rarely design for more than 1 or 2 of these on a regular basis. And that’s the point. Identify who your target audience is, prioritise who is important and then focus on them. By doing that you’re not trying to be everything to everyone. But then, if that’s your business plan then why bother to do any user research, just design something and run it through some rounds of usability testing to see if there are any usability problems with it. It’s a far more efficient and less time consuming option.

    Ben Melbourne

    • Ben – nice name first of all. 🙂 Good stuff. I really did like your article – even though I used it to bounce my ideas off of. It did get me to think about personas a bit differently.

      As you can see now that both parts are up on the site, my real beef is that they aren’t used appropriately. The limits aren’t discussed enough. And so I felt the need to grind through it.

      We’re talking more about it on BUX Podcast 28. Take a listen. If you think there’s something we missed or something you’d like to add, we’ll arrange for a time to Skype and we’ll have you on an upcoming episode of the podcast.

  2. Pingback: Rethinking Personas for Small Business, Part 2: Be the Bieber | A Better User Experience

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