User personas can be polarizing.

They can be a useful tool to help empathize with users and make clear the type of person you are designing for. But they often suffer from pitfalls, some of which are difficult to avoid.

Either way, they are still something every designer should be aware of – even if they have fallen out of favor in recent years.

What User Personas Include

If you’ve come across any user personas before you may have noticed that can vary slightly, but they usually include the following or a similarly expressed variant.

An example of a user persona

Name: The first step to every user persona is usually giving the person a name to make them feel like a real person

Photo: Put a face to that name and it’s easier to empathize and bring to mind the user. You won’t usually find fictional characters or celebrities being used, as they just get in the way and people might have preconceived notions about that person

Bio: The bio gives the user a bit of backstory to make them more relatable. It can often include a quote that in just one sentence can make the person seem more real and sums up what most matters to them

Personality traits: Adding personality traits is an easy way to describe and get into the mind of the user. They are usually presented on a sliding scale, making them easy to understand and reference at a glance

Goals: Users tend to have an overarching goal as well as secondary and tertiary goals with every product they use. So, these are usually listed

Behavior: Behaviors are the things users do as they interact with software. The best way you can make sure your users’ goals are taken care of is through understanding their behaviors.

Pain Points: Great design means a UX that flows as smoothly as possible. Anything that interrupts that flow and gets in the way of a user achieving their goals should be stated

Context: The context is the social and physical environment in which a product is used. It helps to understand how a product fits into the picture of a user’s life

Benefits of User Personas

There are some good reasons to utilize user personas in a design project.

End feature debates: During any design project, it’s all too common for people pushing to have certain features included in the design of the software. The problem with this is that it’s based on personal preferences and assumptions with no real data to back it up. User personas can eliminate this by introducing objective data

Design target: User personas can give the design team a direction to follow as it becomes clear that they’re not designing for themselves but for the persona instead

Builds empathy: As your research data is transformed into the format of a real person with a name, photo and personality with their own goals and behaviors, with it comes an increase in empathy, which is something all good design should be built off

Get specific: It can be easy to generalize for who software is being designed for. Personas can therefore be a useful tool to help the design team avoid generalizations and get specific

Pitfalls of User Personas

There are also several pitfalls to user personas that may lead you to think twice before using them.

Often completely fictional: There’s just something about user personas that people think gives them license to completely make everything up. Instead of using real data to create them, they are viewed as the perfect medium to introduce all their assumptions into the mix under false pretense

Fictional elements: Even when a user persona is based on real data, it still includes fictional elements. The name, photo and biographical details are all fictional

Become a target: Whenever you introduce fictional data and elements into your research, it makes it all too easy for others to pick holes in it and question the direction you want to go in when designing

Confusing: User personas used in UX design are very often confused with personas used in marketing. In design, they are used to help understand specific things about users that can help design better software. Marketing personas are used to market and sell that software instead

Time-consuming: User personas take a long time to produce, maintain and update. Going through your data to craft a narrative and coming up with photos, biographical details and so on isn’t the fastest process. Any time you conduct further research, you then have to update the persona too. This time can often be better spent elsewhere

A Better Alternative?

As UX is a research-based discipline based on real data, it goes without saying that any fictional elements should be kept to a minimum. That means eliminating the photo and name and keeping biographical details to just the bare minimum and most relevant, even though creating a bio can be fun and easy to do.

Another thing you can do is simply skip them altogether. Alan Cooper originally came up with the idea of user personas largely as a tool to better empathize with users. But, in fact, user personas can often have the opposite effect, as it’s harder to empathize when people discover an element of fiction was involved.

A better alternative (and one with an even better name for the purpose) is the empathy map. This achieves many of the same goals as user personas but without the pitfalls.

The idea of this article isn’t to completely put you off user personas. But to inform you that they suffer from some real pitfalls that can be hard to overcome and your time is often spent better elsewhere.