The primary purpose of a persona is so that you won’t design for yourself, or for your boss, or that loud, annoying client.—Alan Cooper.

Alan Cooper is an American software designer and programmer. Widely recognized as the “Father of Visual Basic,” Cooper is also known for his books including The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Learn more…

I hear it from developers, product managers, product marketers, executives. When writing anything from a press release to a programming module, most folks write for their parents. Or their friends. Or themselves.

That’s the value of personas. They remind you that you are not the target customer, nor are your colleagues, your leaders, or your families.

My first encounter with the term persona was in Cooper’s The Inmates Are Running the Asylum yet I’d been using the concept for years without this handy label. “Actors” is a similar concept from UML; so is “audience profiles” from the world of marketing.

But it seems the persona concept is under attack from some quarters.

I’ve heard “personas don’t work for us” and “we don’t use personas; we write for ourselves.”

Invariably when I pursue these concerns, I learn their personas are fictional biographies of theoretical people; they are not based on real people. These “bad” personas are not written based on personal experience with buyers and users of their products. These personas were written by marketing people working with HR and sales people. They’re out of sync with real people with real problems. One marketing team created about 40 personas based on the job descriptions in their HR systems… ignoring that technical team members working at a vendor are materially different from those in internal IT.

When writing, you’re goal is to communicate. Writing doesn’t have to be simple as long as it’s clear to the reader. If your reader knows XML, you can write about classes and inheritance. If not, not. Know who you’re writing for before you start writing.

Do you have personas in your product playbook?


inspiration, personas

Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. Steve, I am totally wrestling with personas in these contexts:

    1. What is my persona as I market myself?
    2. In a recent engagement, personas were rejected as a useful exercise. What strategies can one use (outside of exiting the organization) to get buy-in for the usefulness of the model?

  2. You really need to get underneath the resistance to personas. What problem caused the idea to be dismissed? My guess, as I wrote in this article, is the personas were created by people without first hand experience with real people.

    Johnny Holland asks, Why shouldn’t I kill personas? at

    He’s got some great quotes in here including:
    “Personas are an outcome; not the process.”—Steve Baty
    “Design insights that were not directly experienced by the designer are worthless.”—Will Evans

    I think many teams get confused as to the goal of personas. A persona is evidence that you really know what you’re talking about. When people read your descriptions, they can quickly detect if you know what you’re talking about or not.

    PS. As for you, you want to define the persona of the person who wants to buy what you’re selling. You, personally, are unique; there’s no persona for you!🙂

  3. Thanks Steve for the reflection. In the gig I had where they were rejected, I don’t think it wasn’t because they didn’t have first hand experience with the buyers. Rather, from some of their perspectives I think it was just an “annoying marketing to do.” Well, it was deeper than that, but not supported generally. I think one key is to only share the model with a subset of the team that needs to know about it. And just expose the rest of the team to the deliverable they “expect.”

    And while I am unique (as are all folks), I think the exercise in understanding the persona the hiring manager persona may most likely be expecting is a useful exercise.

  4. Personas shouldn’t be an “annoying to-do” for marketing. But then, if both your products and your sales-enablement are hitting the mark, then clearly the company understands its buyers. If not…

    I know that hiring managers are buyers and you’re the product. The key is to express your “features” in a way that either qualifies or disqualifies you for the position. Are you out-spoken? Is that a desired trait for the position? If not, you don’t fit the hiring profile. So, yes, I think developing a persona for the ideal job for you and then vetting all jobs through that filter makes sense.

    After all, you don’t want “just any job” but one where they value your contributions.

  5. Interesting quote from Alan Cooper. I think a lot of the best products ever were inspired by people (typically not Product Managers) creating products out of exasperation in not being able to find a “product” that satisfied them. Having yourself as a Persona can and should be fine as long as you realize that is what you are doing. Most of us aren’t creating products for “ourselves”. If Joseph Campbell were a Product Manager I am sure he would make some deep observation about persona being fine but Persona being evil. As soon as you cast your insights in cement you are off the path, etc. A persona is another tool, just like a scalpel. It can make things better or worse depending upon the intent and skills behind them.


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