A sign of the times

Defending Personas

If you love a design tool, set it free

Alan Cooper
5 min readMar 9, 2021

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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.

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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.”

Cover of my 1999 book where I first wrote about personas

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…

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Alan Cooper

Ancestry Thinker, Software Alchemist, Regenerative Rancher