Building personas may not be as useful as you’d think—if it’s not done carefully

Personas are a commonly used tool, and for good reason. They help us convey information and make it digestible for an audience. Building personas to tell a story helps us understand reality from a customer’s perspective. Yet sometimes, theory and practice clash.

Much like other concepts and tools, personas have become a bit of a buzzword, shrouded in misconceptions about the definition and application.

According to the book This is Service Design Doing, the definition of personas is as follows: 

Personas usually represent a group of people with shared interests, common behavior patterns, or demographic and geographical similarities.

It’s equally important to understand what’s not included in the definition of a persona. 

Personas are not a target segmentation, wishful future clients, a statistical representation of behavior, or a real person. Nor is it a tool to showcase insights.

Getting stakeholders on board

“Who is this person?” 

This is a common question marketing teams have to face when presenting personas. It’s often a challenge to get stakeholders to understand that personas are not a single person, but a synthesis of common behaviors identified from a sample of users. 

One way to bridge this gap of understanding is to involve key stakeholders early on in the process. Inviting them to participate in field research as well as user interviews will increase the probability that they buy into the project.

Building personas the right way

When conducting qualitative research, it’s possible to reach a saturation point much faster than one would expect. 

It’s not uncommon that personas are built based on a sample of 5 to 20 people, depending on when the archetypes start emerging from the research. And it’s important to mention that just like in all research processes, one should complement these qualitative findings with quantitative data.

It’s no different when building personas. Research starts with qualitative interviews, which set the foundation to conduct quantitative research. It’s not always a linear path, but typically a circular one.

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If not carefully backed by research, as mentioned above, the risk of building personas can be greater than the value they could potentially add. Referring to personas by their descriptive tags (e.g. “caregiver,” “married,” “mother,” etc.), when this is only one part of the picture, can exacerbate already existing stereotypes and stigmas. A way to mitigate this effect to a certain degree is to avoid enriching personas with descriptions and details which are not relevant to the context.

In the process of creating a narrative, an issue that often occurs is human bias. The researcher adds their own beliefs into their analysis without any evidence from research. For this reason, it’s important to always go back to the previous findings and inputs to check if what is being built reflects the reality.

There is, of course, some value in building personas for users, such as showcasing the real customers behind the numbers or helping dismiss any conscious and unconscious biases and stereotypes people may have regarding consumers. 

In the end, we must remember that personas, much like other design tools, are only one element among many other tools in the toolkit. This doesn’t mean that designers should feel obliged to use it in every delivery. Rather, it’s up to designers to use critical thinking to determine if using personas can help them achieve certain goals in their particular context.


gabriela machadoGabriela Machado believes people are the key to solving any existing problem—and the cause of most of them, if we’re honest. She is passionate about human-centered design and is currently pursuing the Master in Customer Experience & Innovation and working as a Service Designer at UMANI Design. She is also a travel blogger, food lover, and an inherently curious person. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Tanya Raschle is currently pursuing the Master in Customer Experience & Innovation and is passionate about immersing herself in different contexts in order to design products and services with a human-centered approach. Apart from that, she has a background working in the hospitality industry, and loves photography and discovering places that are off the beaten track. Connect with her here.

sandyAn avid learner and relentless thinker, Sandy Chahine believes that the most interesting work happens at the intersection of powerful questions and daring creativity. Having worked in strategy and design, she is now pursuing the Master in Customer Experience & Innovation at HST. Beyond design, her heart belongs to humanities—being involved in various initiatives to promote culture and social well-being. Get in touch on LinkedIn.