Personas in HCI: shocking truths revealed

The objectives and usefulness of personas are disputed topics in professional HCI contexts. I’d like to reopen the debate, by suggesting that personas are based on at least one flawed assumption.

First, though, a quick definition of persona. Personas are narratives that describe hypothetical users of a website, typically through details about their background, their values, their overall information needs, and their specific objectives on a site.

The best descriptions of personas focus on the way that they can function as communication devices, and drive home to business decision-makers that their choices will affect real users. While this might be true to some extent, I feel that some critique is necessary to clarify that personas are not fact, but instead are a pretty nebulous methodology, and not ‘scientific’ tools.

Major philosophical problem 1:
This problem is more a clarification of what personas are not: objective, or able to subject to considerations of proof of concept. Personas are impossible to refute as a scientific technique, because they are based on the construction of hypothetical worlds. As a result, any arguments of whether or not they are good or useful, or bad and not useful, is meaningless. Is astrology useful? If you believe in it, you can use it to validate certain perceived characteristics of your self, others, or situations. But you will never have any evidence as to whether it is valid or not. Personas, I argue, are a similar form of ‘pseudo science’, because there is nothing that can’t be explained through a persona, and there is no single, or even identifiable subset, of correct personas for a given website affliction. Let’s say you are a designer asked to evaluate a website. Can it be said whether there is any truth, in terms of real-world correspondence, between the type of person described and the aspect of the site? Is the persona true? That is impossible to say, regardless of how much sense it may seem to make as one
reads the tasks, needs, etc, associated with the person. If personas live in the world of fiction, how can we possibly tie them to actual aspects of a website and types of people?

Major philosophical problem 2:
Personas assume that there is a real connection between desires (i.e, information needs), actions, and aspects of a website. But these things are not at all necessarily contingent, and I argue that the specific connections personas imply of these sorts are probably quite often completely false, if not verified through other, less subjective techniques. The problem is that, stated in terms of information beliefs and personal values, personas are only a re-description of the action that they are thought to be predicting, and that that action is only a re-description of the aspects of the website that it is thought to be linked to. But in reality, the connections personas imply are logical, not contingent — they are created in the mind of the designer who writes the persona.

In sum, a persona is in my opinion best described as a label. A complicated, completely arbitrary label, used to direct focus to an aspect of a website, but without any foundation in fact.

If you are a huge persona fan, feel free to weight in. My intention in this blog post was not re-hash obvious facts of personas, but instead to touch on some of the more tacit assumptions that go along with them.