Why we don’t use personas

Public Good Studio
3 min readSep 26, 2023

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Design is a doing word but somewhere on the road to understanding, we lost that sense of momentum. We got caught up in trade-speak: user experiences, prototypes, customer journey maps.

Left hanging out there is a big question I’ve become accustomed to answering from tech-conscious CEOs. We’re in the room, we’re talking, but everyone is silently asking, “When are we going to start developing personas?”

I get it. It feels like the question you came to ask, but the reality is when we’re working together that word is not even going to come up unless it’s in the context of the Maxo Kream tape. Personas may have started their cycle of usefulness as well-intentioned research tools, but quickly became tools for marketing agencies to justify their communications decisions and better distinguish themselves in their desperately competitive environments.

A persona is a set of assumptions sketched out. The better the designer making the pitch deck, the more convincing, the more believable that drawing will be. The goal is to make data easier to understand, more memorable, and (if we’re lucky) useful to the process of design and communications. This approach should allow potential users or audiences to relate to a real human who embodies the set of characteristics shaded into the persona. This builds empathy for the users so we can more deeply understand their needs. The problem with this is that in 2023, human personal expression is at its peak. There are 22 year olds who knit furiously and 74 year old Twitch streamers.

When we’re developing tools like a persona, bias injection and demographic dependency is all but inevitable. We are, after all, nothing if not creatures of the information on which we live. No judgement, just a fact. Most persona information is demographic, which is great for producing pie charts and star-ratings, but there ends its usefulness.

Personas also place a lot of emphasis on unnecessary details, but are often missing something core. Because they’re not grounded in a set of tasks, there’s nothing useful for a designer to actually do (please read Kim Goodwin’s excellent article about personas and scenarios). Remember, design is a doing word, and usually, personas are for showing, not doing.

The Jobs We Do (not the personas we see)

As for me and mine, we use Jobs to be Done strategy to develop our user profiles. Instead of staring down the valley of who we think people are, we focus on what they need to achieve. This makes sense to us because this is why we wanted to get to know about them in the first place

We look at key tasks, outlining both emotional and functional needs that users or customers hope to meet, and develop a set of data that allows us to tie goals to performance indicators and establish differentiation by needs (read: product features or brand attributes).

The common user archetype is a great example here. If we were to use personas, we’d consider age, location, interests, media consumption, devices, and personality traits. Most of which would be flat assumptions. Using JTBD, we can examine their needs, the metrics they use to check that they’re being met — and the pain points that stand in the way of these goals, whether they be emotional or functional. JTBD gives a basis for the why when we’re making our work, and we use it for every project: branding, product development, ad campaigns, app prototypes. Everything.

It’s time to stop making products and brand strategies around personas and start by finding out what your targets are trying to accomplish. Because, regardless of background, age, status, and motivation, everybody is trying to get a job done. And, no, it’s often not something you can serve with a ready-made solution, and the investigation takes more time, but it’s worth it. It’s an approach that saves hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product development time. Too often companies make an app because they think an app should be made.

A focused JTBD-based UX strategy can help them focus on the reasons they need one (or don’t) and help them tailor its requirements and features to the needs of their target audience, so that they can turn their tech spend into a worthwhile investment.

—Agyei, PGS CEO

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Public Good Studio

Public Good Studio is an award-winning Caribbean venture studio with a people-first approach.