Personas generate some controversy

There’s an interesting discussion going on in the blogosphere about the merits of personas. In late January the Cranky PMdid a rant about the “crap detail” in personas, complaining that they don’t “include the facts that really matter.” A few days later, Saeed Khan jumped into the fray with a post at On Product Management. Like the Cranky PM, Saeed expressed disdain for the prevalence of so much useless, irrelevant information.

Now this week’s post from Kristin Zhivago says that personas can create trouble. Her concern — that sales people might use personas to forget everything they were ever taught about consultative selling. It appears that she’s also seen websites with misguided persona practices, since she references web copy that describes a persona rather than answering her questions. From those two vantage points, it’s no wonder that Kristin’s raising a red flag.

Those of us who do understand personas need to know that there is a lot of misinformation going around. Before we launch a persona project internally, we need to be familiar with these concerns and make sure we don’t do anything to
reinforce them.

The first step is to make sure that our personas accurately reflect the real needs of a target set of buyers. I did a webinar last week that outlines seven ways to gather good persona information. If you want a refresher, or if you are new to persona development, you can view the webinar here.

Then we need to consider the needs of each of our internal audience personas and deliver only the information that makes sense. If I want to communicate with a developer about the capabilities that drive buying decisions, I’m careful to stick to the facts. Developers want Data. Anything that could conceivably be perceived as fluff will only discredit everything else I have to say.

When I talk to sales people about a new persona I want them to reach, I tell them a story about the process the buyer will go through to make a decision. Sales people want Stories. I make sure that my story illustrates the sales tools we built to answer each persona’s questions throughout the stages of the buying process.
I don’t generally use the “persona” word when I talk to sales people. Instead I talk about someone with a specific job title in a target industry. I tell them who I talked to in a particular role, and what I learned from theseconversations. Here’s a recent post I wrote on this subject.

If my target is a web designer, I tell them to use the persona information to think about who will visit the site, which stages in the buying process they are completing online, and what questions we need to answer if we want to move the process forward. In most cases, it should not be apparent to the web visitor that personas were utilized by the designer. The persona simply communicates the needs of the buyer(s) so that the developer knows how to enable a satisfying  buying process.

And if the internal audience is an executive, read yesterday’s post on the Tuned In Blog by Phil Myers at Pragmatic Marketing. Phil talks about using personas to distribute leadership responsibilities and align different parts of the company around the needs and concerns of the market. You might also think about whether your senior executive is really a developer or sales person at heart, and utilize the ideas in the relevant paragraph above.

The good news is that personas are generating a lot of discussion and notoriety. But fame often exposes an idea to criticism, so we all need to stay grounded in the facts and the importance of the problem we’re trying to solve. Keep reminding everyone that market-driven companies need to implement practices to understand and communicate internally about the needs of different segments of the market. Tell them that we will use personas to avoid all of the wasted effort on messages, programs and tactics that speak to no one. Those are goals that won’t generate any controversy.


  1. Ivan Chalif says:

    I don’t write personas into my MRDs, but I do consider them when I am writing the MRD; when I am evaluating bugs; and when I am reviewing a UI wire frame or work flow.
    Knowing (and thinking about) the personas helps me think about issues in my product within a certain context. It also helps me keep individual issues in relation to the big picture.
    I use the persona as a way to communicate with others in my company why I made a particular product decision or why a given solution is not a good fit. The persona provides a world view outside of me or anyone else at the company.
    I do agree, however, that it is easy to turn a persona into a bio or caricature, and when that happens, the persona loses it’s value because it ceases to be representative of the larger target.

  2. Hi Adele!
    In my experience, the people who get most hung up on buyer personas are those making excuses not to do them. Same as those who obsess about the big bad blogosphere and refuse to monitor or participate on blogs because it is so “dangerous” and you might even be “off message”.
    I keep coming back to a simple thing you taught me about personas. Marketing develops personas so they can market to a group of people rather than just being egotistical and marketing products. However sales people don’t sell to personas – they sell to individual buyers one person at a time.

  3. Saeed Khan says:

    I wrote the OnProductManagement piece you referenced in your post
    A couple of years back, I worked with some people who were Cooper alumni. They were (not surprisingly) strong proponents of personae, and went to a lot of trouble to do the ethnographic research, ask insightful questions about the daily activities of people, collect incredibly detailed notes and then put together comprehensive personae of the various players that needed to be understood.
    They had a wall board with pictures of the individual personae (Charles the CEO, Lucy the Business Analyst etc.) along with their descriptions and back stories.
    Many engineers found this whole exercise quite irrelevant. I found a lot of the research very useful, but the outputs too distracting to communicate what needed to be said.
    For Enterprise software, defining personae can be useful, but it isn’t critical. For consumer software, I can see the value.
    Perhaps more overall education is needed on the topic. Perhaps the Cooper folks need to back off a bit how they promote and use personae. I’m not sure, but something needs to change.

  4. Carole Gunst says:

    Adele – keep up the great work with Buyer Personas. After taking your Pragmatic Marketing class while I was at Iron Mountain a few years back, we starting putting them into action. They were a huge help when we were designing marcom and programs to reach our buyers. After all, if you don’t know who your customer is, why bother trying to market to them. Your marketing activities turn into “busy work” or activities to get sales off your back. – Carole

  5. It’s easy to misuse personas, to think of them as some silver bullet to improve product design. And I can see why developers sometimes think of them as fluffy and irrelevant.
    I wrote a piece reacting against designers who wanted to have photos, coffee preferences and biographical details for a user of enterprise software called “Personas Are Not People” arguing that irrelevant detail is at best distracting and at worst very misleading.
    Good personas are not made up, though, and I find them very useful in conjunction with use cases. They help me imagine a person using my product to accomplish specific goals. Their goals, attitudes, skills and preferences help me to make sure I’ve covered their needs in writing my requirements.
    In my experience, they also help engineers, designers and QA people imagine who they are working for. But only if they are communicated well enough (with the right kind of detail) to be useful to those folks.
    I wrote another bit (“Personas Are Not Fiction Either”) about a technique I learned from User Interface Engineering founder Jared Spool to develop useful and accurate personas.

  6. R. Gauthier says:

    Hi Adele,
    I’ve been reading your posts about personas and was wondering if you have any good books to recommend on this topic. I have browsed Amazon and found 2 potential books: The Personna Lifecycle (Pruitt/Adlin) and Oberving the User Experience (Kuniavsky). Have you had the chance to read these? What are the pros/cons of each book?

  7. Adele says:

    I haven’t read the Kuniavsky book so can’t comment on that. However, I have The Persona Lifecycle and it is excellent — goes into a lot of detail about how to build personas and encourage the usage of them within the company. There are only two negatives. First it is 742 pages long (but well organized and you can skip around). Second, it focuses on persona development from the perspective of the user of the product, not the buying influencers. There is one short chapter talking about the use of personas in the area of marketing, but it isn’t as detailed as you might want. Still, if you want to learn about the fundamentals of persona development and maintenance, this is an excellent book.

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