Yesterday, on a video conference call, I gave a presentation to more than a thousand people around the world. I was billed prominently as “The inventor of Design Personas.” Afterwards, several people pointed out that I never once talked about personas. I didn’t even say the word. I’m proud of my contribution of personas — and other tools — to the interaction design toolbox, but I am not the caretaker of personas.
I created and developed design personas over many years and they became one of our central design tools at my consulting company, Cooper. I presented the idea to small design classes we hosted, and talked about them to small groups in academia and in the trade. They were well received but remained relatively unknown.
Then, in 1999, I wrote about them in my book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. That book was directed at middle level business managers rather than practitioners, as was my first book, About Face. The Inmates was an effort to convince managers that the tech world needed the participation of interaction designers. I included a few examples of the tools I used to illustrate the point that interaction design was a unique discipline, different from other roles in the development process. Chapter Nine was devoted to personas.
To my surprise, practitioners read the book, and many of them zeroed in on the persona concept. At my design firm, Cooper, we well knew of the power of personas to help us understand users and design for their needs more effectively, but I didn’t see personas as a proprietary tool. The Inmates was never intended to be a “how-to” manual for personas. If practitioners were intrigued by the idea, well then, I thought, “Here, world, take personas and use them. It will be good for everyone.”
Of course, I was pleased to find that personas had attracted interest in the broader design community. And to no one’s surprise, at Cooper, we saw the marketing value therein, and proudly used our invention of personas to establish our bona fides.
But personas weren’t…official. My little screed exhorting business managers to include designers on the dev team wasn’t a vetted thesis in an accredited academic institution, nor was it presented in a peer-reviewed publication, so it didn’t have any intellectual authority, so to speak. Soon, personas were floating away on the random opinions of people who knew nothing about them and who made no effort to communicate with me to learn. I began to smell a rat when I visited Microsoft in the early oughts and found “personas” being widely mis-understood and mis-used there. The Microsoft version of personas was a 180 degree inversion of reality. At Cooper, we did our field research and then synthesized personas as a tool for understanding and communicating the goals, motivations, and desired end-states of our real-world users. At Microsoft, they invented personas to defend the features that the engineers cooked up in their ivory towers. At Cooper, we knew that narrowing the focus was the key to good design, so we tightly restricted the number of personas we used. At Microsoft, they had hundreds of personas, one for each feature they wanted to inflict on their users.
Two prominent designers at Microsoft published an influential book on personas that contributed to the widespread misunderstanding of what personas were and how they should be used.
Yes, it’s true that I invented personas, but I don’t own them and I don’t make any money from them.
Personas are just one of the powerful design tools I’ve invented over the years. I believe that part of their appeal is how easy it is to do “personas” without really doing personas. When a well-intentioned practitioner would read a blog and learn some bogus “persona” method, they’d soon fail. And reasonably, they would blame personas. Often, they’d realize what was wrong, and recapitulate them under their own name. They’d then write their own blog post saying, “[This thing that isn’t personas that I’m going to call personas] is really awful. But this [personas under some new name] is much better!”
I was offended by this and became a vocal critic of the corruption of one of our most cherished and effective design tools. The bowdlerized versions, while easier to create and use, didn’t actually work. When those bogus “personas” failed, I felt personally responsible and believed that setting things right was my job to be done. I found myself arguing about personas and I would get into periodic street brawls on Twitter about proper persona usage.
A few of my more sensible colleagues counseled me to abandon that effort. They said that it made me sound shrill and defensive, and that my arguments weren’t making a difference anyway. Gradually, I accepted their advice and grew silent on the topic of personas.
In 2017, Sue Cooper (my wife and business partner) and I sold our consulting business and retired. Stepping away from the world of interaction design and software development gave me some much needed perspective.
Yes, it’s true that I invented personas, but I don’t own them and I don’t make any money from them. I can’t put them in a box and sell them. From the very beginning I gave them away by telling the world about them, so I can’t control their definition or application in the practitioner community. My defense of them is seen simply as one man’s opinion. Defending their “proper” usage is a quixotic battle.
It pleases me to hear stories of designers successfully using personas, but their misuse in the wider world is a challenge for the practitioner community to resolve. That community owns and is responsible for the tools of their trade, and they must assure their definition.
There are good sources of information about personas out there, mostly written by ex-Cooperistas who learned them well and applied them successfully to a wide range of projects. It would be valuable for someone in the field to compile a directory of non-bogus writing about personas.
Years ago, I chronicled the story of the creation of personas.
You can see the conference call presentation here.