Are Personas an Effective Tool?

A UX Researcher’s Guild Online Event
Moderated by Danielle Green and Jess Vice
This abridged version was written by Booker Harrap. View the full video presentation here.
Session 2 – July 14, 2023

As a UX researcher, it’s essential to stay up-to-date with the ever-evolving perspectives on research best practices. Scrutinizing our standard tools and methodologies is important to catch any gaps in our ability to generate sound, actionable insights. In a recent Research Rumble, we took a deep dive into one such tool: personas.

Are Personas Good?

(By Jess Vice)

Distilling Research for Easy Consumption
For design and development teams, who tend to be very visual and think big picture, personas provide a concise summary. Instead of being overwhelmed with data, they get a snapshot, making it easier to assimilate and act upon.

Preventing Self-referential Design
Alan Cooper’s introduction of personas in 1998 aimed to curb the “elastic user” problem, where we imagine what the user might want or who the user might be. Designing based on assumptions is problematic; personas ground these decisions in research.

Maintaining a Research-Backed Focus
Personas help in combating scope creep. They serve as a constant reminder of the real user, discouraging the creation of imaginary users based on our biases or assumptions.

Building Team Alignment
When multiple stakeholders are involved, differing opinions can delay projects. Personas, being research-backed, offer a common ground and guide aligned decision-making.

Cultivating Empathy
With diverse teams contributing to product development, it’s easy to lose sight of the user. Personas serve as a tool to humanize users, fostering empathy, and ensuring that the end product caters to genuine needs.

What’s Wrong with Personas?

(By Danielle Green)

Inclusion of Irrelevant Data
When personas become more of a formality than a functional tool, they risk containing unnecessary information. This dilutes their effectiveness and confuses more than clarifies. 

Too Many Personas
Creating a multitude of personas can paradoxically make them less useful. Instead of clarity, teams face choice paralysis, questioning which persona to prioritize.

Unsubstantiated Foundations
A persona built on minimal or irrelevant data risks being a fictional character rather than a representative of real users.

Risk of Extrapolation
Ironically, while personas aim to curb assumptions, they can sometimes encourage them. Stereotyping of characteristics present in the persona can lead to misplaced assumptions. “Did we just assume that the mother of five who is preparing a family’s meal is a homemaker? Or did we actually ask that question?”

Mental Shortcuts to Different Internal Definitions
Similar to extrapolating beyond the data, the mental shortcuts that personas provide can turn sour when these shortcuts lead to different internal definitions. Maybe memories of the data have warped over time, leaving stakeholders overconfident in what are essentially assumptions.

Designing for the Average, Not the Real
Assuming these challenges of execution and socialization have been overcome – there is a decent amount of data from an appropriately representative sample – what could go wrong? Often, this data is represented by the averages across the various characteristics, creating a persona of a user that doesn’t exist. This can lead to a persona with conflicting items that don’t align.

Creating for the Current Market, Not the Target Market
Maybe the problem of the non-existent average user has been accounted for with a cluster analysis to see which factors hang together, leaving the team with an accurate snapshot of the current user. Perfect! Or is it? There is a difference between the target market and the current market which is not being accounted for by this approach, and this can be a strategic pitfall. Company mission, company values, and a changing marketplace mean it may be very important to design for the ideal user, but this excellent persona of the current user is blinding, and the new market out there that could be served is being ignored. 

An interesting data point here: Despite these concerns, a recent UXPA salary survey revealed that 68% of UX researchers still employ personas.

Why Are Personas Good?

Group Discussion Insights In Favor of Personas

Echoing the Opening Arguments

Cultivating Empathy
It comes as no surprise that this point was echoed by other groups of Rumble attendees.

Maintaining a Research-Backed Focus, and Building Team Alignment
This quote reflects these points well. It also makes a fresh point that personas create company-wide prioritization:

“We need to have consumer surveys with significant data that show that these characteristics, these priorities, these pain points match up with this group that is statistically significant [and] fits within a mainstream user base, right? And we have a general sense of the jobs that they want to get done with our product, right? And so my approach with personas is I will incorporate anything into them that works, that will make it more credible… make it easier for designers to act on it and to keep the company, the product designers, the product managers, the executives–strategically keep everyone aligned on [the] top priorities and the biggest pain-points or use cases that we’re solving for that appeal to a large mainstream user base.”

Fresh Insights

High Utility for Those Involved in the Design Process
This was brought up by two different groups, who called out that personas are particularly useful for stakeholders involved in the design process. Here is a quote:

“[Personas are] very valuable to creatives, designers, and people making decisions on behalf of users and a product and ensuring that they’re building or designing the right thing.”

Replacing Personas… With What?
Two groups independently brought up the following question: “If we throw out personas, what would we replace them with?” It’s a good question that no one had an answer to.

Differentiating Target Markets
A more specific use case for personas mentioned is their utility in differentiating target markets.

“The buyer of a [truck] is very different than the buyer of a [sports car]. [Personas] help us. But then … at a second level, we try to expand our personas because it is possible that that single mom not living in Texas does want to drive a truck. So, we might have who we think is our target, but we try to expand them beyond that.”

Aspirational, Building Towards the Ideal Customer
This callout echoed the opening remarks about considering the ideal user:

“We see a lot of benefit for them being useful for long-term or aspirational use. Who is it that we want to be targeting and can we build towards that sort of ideal customer?

Why Are Personas Bad?

Group Discussion Insights Against Personas

Echoing the Opening Arguments

Risk of Extrapolation
One group specifically referenced the opening remarks:

“As we’ve already discussed, it’s also very easy to get a big idea about something with very little data, which can lead you down a false path.”

Fresh Insights

This is where things got interesting. Although most of the favorable aspects of personas had already been mentioned in the opening arguments, our Rumble attendees had a lot of new insights when speaking about the pitfalls of personas.

Relying on Old Data / Not Updating Persona
One group of Rumble attendees brought up the need to constantly check where the data is sourced from and how recently it was updated. This is a good point; personas should not become stagnant artifacts that provide a false sense of diligence in research-backed decision-making. They must reflect the user we are currently trying to target.

Risk of Not Designing for Limited Abilities
This was a great point that can so easily be overlooked when creating a persona, and focusing on your largest addressable market. All products should keep in mind the need to design for people with ability limitations: not just because it is the ethical (which it very much is!) and the effective thing to do, but companies who fail to do this can find themselves in very hot water, legally or as a matter of public image.

Less Useful for Stakeholders Not Involved in Design
On the flip side of the benefit that personas provide to people involved in designing and building products, personas can have a limited utility for stakeholders not involved in the design lifecycle. Like all presentation of research, it is important to remain intentional in the building of an artifact and who it is designed to help.

Quickly Forgotten After Lots of Work
This can easily happen since personas are such a standard practice. If they are being built as a matter of checking a box in the product development process, and a low effort is made to integrate their use during design and decision-making processes, that can make them effectively a waste of time and resources. Have a plan to revisit research artifacts throughout design!

Limited Resolution of Target Market
Looking back to the benefit personas provide in differentiating target markets, this only happens if the opportunity to do so is noticed and acted on. If you rely on only one persona, there’s a risk of excluding a segment of the market that represents a substantial opportunity. Don’t fall into this trap! As one of our Rumble attendees noted: “It is possible that that single mom living in Texas does want to drive a truck.”

Sometimes They Don’t Account for the “Why”
While personas provide a snapshot of the user’s characteristics and needs, they often lack deeper insights into the underlying reasons or motivations behind certain behaviors or preferences. This “why” aspect is critical for truly understanding the user’s pain-points, desires, and context:–”They may watch TV, but why?”

Potential solution offered by rumble attendee:

Integrate the user journey and product mapping into the persona and vice versa. This underscores the importance of combining personas with other research methods and artifacts to gain a more holistic view of the user.


Personas and UX research are seemingly inseparable; when you think of UX research methods, personas are likely top of mind.  Personas have become a UX tradition, and like all traditions, it’s worth taking a hard look at them and seeing if they still serve us. In this post, we’ve taken a look at the highlights from our recent Research Rumble where we discussed how well, or poorly, they fit into the modern UXer’s toolkit.

. . .

About Danielle Green (she/her): Danielle is a product and UX professional specializing in research and strategy (high growth, product-market fit). She is an Instructor and mentor with eight years in product, and five years leading teams. As a professor of practices at Claremont Graduate University, Danielle teaches the core courses for the User Experience MA in Applied Cognitive Psychology. She is also the founder and director of the Claremont UXR Laboratory (, a graduate student lab for UX Research, and has extensive experience in many domains, such as: e-commerce, SaaS, Edtech, Virtual Reality, and hardware.

About Jess Vice (they/them): Jess loves working with people and is curious and excited to understand what drives them to make decisions. Jess offers a deep background in qualitative and quantitative research, user experience best practices, and high-level strategic planning and is particularly good at making meaning from research and using it to create data-informed strategies for creative and development teams. Jess is also intensely aware that the first point of contact is always the internal teams they work with — if a relationship is not built on trust, they know they won’t be a successful researcher and strategist. Jess has been working in marketing and advertising, CRO, SaaS, and product for over 14 years, and is consistently thrilled with how much more there is to learn.

About Booker Harrap (he/him): Booker recently graduated with a master’s degree in UX Research from Claremont Graduate University. He is currently a UX Researcher with Atticus Capital and is working with the Games & Interactive Technology Lab on an emotional wellness program for middle school students using gamified mobile applications. Booker is actively seeking employment opportunities in UX research. For more information,  please send an email to

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