Empowered Personas

plural noun: personas
the aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others.

User Persona can be an incredibly useful tool when embedding UX design philosophies into your business. However, personas are controversial. They are challenging to construct and existing guidelines involve as much creativity as science. It is difficult to verify that a persona accurately reflects user data needed to define the right personas. It can be hard to convince development teams to use personas and there are some socio-political settings where they may be impractical.

Personas are Incredibly Valuable for Communication with People Outside the UCD (user-centric design) Team Personas seemed to be most valuable as communication tools, especially with people outside the UCD team. Other product group members and stakeholders are often not oriented to user concerns. Methods like personas are incredibly valuable to communicate user needs and advocate specific designs to non-designer audiences.


Author/Copyright holder: Smashing Magazine. Copyright terms and license: All rights reserved. Img Source

Business challenges:


  • Personas are impersonal – the personifying details in personas fail to provide a sense of empathy.
  • Personas literature discusses at great length the important, difficult task of introducing personas to developers and stakeholders
  • Engineering teams are often focused on coding and developing ‘features’
  • Engineers are not sensitized to the user’s needs– which effectively is the ‘purpose’ of all products
  • Personas are abstract – it is hard to understand the abstraction process from user data to persona, so personas come across as lacking critical detail.

Question: Amidst this controversy, how do experienced designers and UX practitioners actually use and perceive personas?

Answer: Engaging Personas…

The engaging perspective is rooted in the ability of stories to produce involvement and insight. Through an understanding of characters and stories, it is possible to create a vivid and realistic description of fictitious people. The purpose of the engaging perspective is to move from designers seeing the user as a stereotype with whom they are unable to identify and whose life they cannot envision, to designers actively involving themselves in the lives of the personas. The other persona perspectives are criticized for causing a risk of stereotypical descriptions by not looking at the whole person, but instead focusing only on behavior.” – Lene Nielsen

Case: Introducing Stewie the “data steward”

These are life-sized cutouts of the chosen personas for data governance application.

1. Personifying details mislead
– it is difficult to select personal details that do not create false constraints on the design problem.2. Personifying details distract – personifying details make it hard to focus on the aspects of a persona that is critical for the design problem.Answer- No ambiguityStewie comes with a speech bubble– one that top business problem in his/her mind is mentioned. This question is intended to provoke thoughts in an overlooker. 
3.The difficult task of introducing personas to developers and stakeholders

Answer– a seamless and non-intrusive way to introduce the persona

There is a QR code, if you scan the QR, code, on your smartphone, a PDF file opens with all the details of the persona.


Hand-drawn, therefore copyright and syndication free

blog6_ blog7_
Prototype: version 1.0 , non-interactive
  1. Engagement, enabling the discussion

Personas are used to advocate for user needs with the development team: When we were presenting to our development team, we would use the personas to put the design in context. And if there was potentially a debate about a particular feature… it’s helpful to have the persona as a way to reference what the users would actually be like… If a development team member who’s implementing something, they may say something like, ‘The design you’ve proposed looks good, but it’s not feasible for these reasons. Can we just do XYZ instead?’ We can say, ‘Well, that might not be so good because, from a user perspective, this person has the following expertise…’

Extending the case to other engaging personas:

blog9_Terri- the “business” user blog10_Dev- the “developer”

Recommended workflow to interacting with engaging personas:


The concept of using personas originated from Cooper (1999), who observed that designers were often unclear of user needs. In response, he proposed the use of personas — fictitious human characters with attributes derived from ethnographic user research. Pruitt and Adlin (2006) identified three benefits of using personas: helping designers shift their focus from self-centeredness to user-centeredness; promoting a better understanding of users’ complex and diverse needs; acting as a proxy for situations where users were inaccessible. Matthews etc. (2012) observed that personas were mostly used to champion user needs or garner support for a chosen design; a persona might also be used if time or resources did not permit them to gather such first-hand experience, even if this option was viewed by many as sub-optimal. Pruit and Grudin (2003) argued that the use of personas, in conjunction with other techniques, could restore the social and political dimensions of the connection between designers(also counting the development organization here) and users.

 Why Does This Matter?

It matters because UX research matters. If your products don’t meet the needs of your users then your products suck. Sucky products have a tendency to follow the dodo on the way out of the evolutionary ladder. These persona issues are the first sign that your company’s not getting things right.

Personas are perceived and used in industrial product design by experienced design and UX practitioners who have prior experience using personas. Research shows despite personas commonly being advocated both for design and communication activities, almost exclusively for communication and sometimes not design.

Also, read:

Atlanta based Photographer Jason Travis has created a series of Persona Portraits with their artifacts which illustrates the power of visually representing archetypal users, customers or personalities.



Author/Copyright holder: CannedTuna. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Harry Brignull- User Experience & User Research Specialist. Currently Head of UX at Smart Pension. Previously @Spotify, @Clearleft. The Dark Patterns guy.

Acknowledgement: Original Ideation
Mohammed, Rejeeb <rmohammed@informatica.com>


Blomquist, Å. & Arvola, M. 2002, “Personas in Action: Ethnography in an Interaction Design Team”, Proceedings of the Second Nordic Conference on Human-computer InteractionACM, New York, NY, USA, pp. 197.

 CannedTuna. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Harry Brignull- User Experience & User Research Specialist. Currently Head of UX at Smart Pension.

Jason Travis- https://www.flickr.com/photos/jasontravis/


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