‟I’ve spent a lot of time trying to be right… But the opportunity to be wrong is really underrated.
– via Twitter
I've been trying a new technique lately. I've been calling it super-detailed personas, but I call it "super personas" to be pithier.
You can find plenty of problems with personas. In fact, if you Google the specific term "the problem with personas," you'll find dozens of articles with this exact title. The first hit is from Maggie Peterson and is worth reading.
Another prominent examples is from Basecamp founder Jason Fried. In an Ask 37signals post he wrote: "I believe personas lead to a false sense of understanding at the deepest, most critical levels."
Ouch. Fried puts forward the thesis that he's his own persona: "Every product we build is a product we build for ourselves to solve our own problems."
This is a convincing use-case, and it shows in their execution. Personally, I find myself building for people other than myself. In fact, I prefer this.
Fried and his contemporaries argue that personas are a sham. Shallow and distracting. They'll argue that you should be talking to real people. I don't entirely disagree. I've seen plenty of poorly executed personas, just as I've seen more than a few poorly executed user stories. But it also doesn't mean personas aren't useful.
Personas are a device. It's a way of externalizing a whole bunch of assumptions and presumptions. For me, the most overlooked use in a person is a chance to be wrong.
In fact, when I assumed that I was building something wrong, that's when I started to find personas useful. To do this, I've started using "Super Personas." In this exercise, you put down everything you assume about a particular type of user. Everything you can think of, even if outlandish. What college they attended. Their favorite e-commerce store. The way they organize their closet. Anything.
Our models of the world are always flawed. But flawed models still have utility, if used right.
It's easy to underrate having a baseline, even a wrong one. As long as you accept it's wrong. Without a baseline, you're exploring a domain without any frame of reference. When it's just you that might be possible. With a team or group, it gets difficult.
What you're saying is here is this persona is a guess. Ideally a somewhat informed one, but halfway realistic is fine too. Then you use this guess to triangulate some level of reality.
With a Super Persona you want to consider a few things:
- Do it as an exercise, rather than as a proxy for your actual user. In most of the criticisms of personas, this is the core flaw. You end up with a low-fidelity version of your real users.
- Put down everything. Make stuff up. Push the limits. Everyone should come up with at least twenty. After ten or so you find that's where the creativity kicks in.
- The first useful step is to separate items into what's relevant and irrelevant. The fact that you're assuming this example went to an Ivy League school may be pointless for a designer. But it might be very relevant for Marketing. It's likely irrelevant. But even knowing this difference in perspectives is a useful conversation.
- Finally, test it. Actually, don't test. Smash it. Talk to your users. Be prepared to find out how far off you were.
Some people will prefer to do this organically. And they're great at it. For me, I find that having a baseline to thumbs up or down gives me something grounded.
That's what I've been trying, and it's been useful so far. Give it a shot.