Wilson Fletcher

Should we still characterise audiences?


Personas, jobs-to-be-done, segmentations... there are numerous ways in which design teams characterise audiences. But just how useful are these characterisations when designing for today’s challenges? WF Partner Katie Wishlade investigates.

We ran a strategy workshop the other day, defining purpose, vision and objectives for one of our clients’ services. One item on the agenda was to discuss their existing audiences. Beforehand, they’d shared a large set of personas that had been created to inform a previous redesign. When we brought up the personas, they were completely disregarded, with the team saying they had tried to use them but hadn’t found them useful. Before long, the conversation moved on and the personas were never mentioned again.

We haven’t used personas in workshops for years, and now very rarely use them as a design tool. They used to be seen as a crucial tool for every design process; an essential step in bringing the problem design was solving to life. “Sarah, Teacher, 26, uses her tablet in the evenings when she’s finished her lesson planning.” Why is this characterisation of target customers no longer regarded as a useful design tool?


Too many bad personas

Personas have suffered from what happens to most established techniques – they get taken out of context and relied upon too much. People build these techniques into their standard project ‘processes’, drawing a nice diagram to reflect it. Soon, every project features a discovery phase with a set of personas as a deliverable.

Coupled with this, poorly constructed personas have also undermined their value. Personas have often been confused with marketing segmentations, which often correctly, are based on this type of demographic information for targeting, but aren’t used as input for design. Personas that are intended to inform design decisions should be based on goals, with their demographics and characteristics merely a memorable layer over the top.

Insight integrated with design

Personas were historically created by ‘researchers’ as part of an up-front discovery stage, as a summary of insights to hand over to ‘designers’ to use. In this old, waterfall world, the creation of fictional characters that embody the behaviours of audience groups was a memorable communication tool between the research and the designer.

Now, the way teams have evolved means that designers are much more likely to be directly involved in the research, thereby gaining first-hand empathy for users. This eliminates the need to characterise the audience and means that they can rely on more direct tools that focus on identifying user needs.

Singular sparks are more valuable than generalisations

Personas make generalisations about different audience groups and embody them in a fictional character. However, we’re often looking for that single comment that can spark an entirely new service idea rather than sweeping generalisation.

It’s also true that our digital world has matured to accommodate individuals, not buckets of people. Making these generalisation is getting harder and harder. As services have matured, platforms have proliferated and content has skyrocketed, the way we all navigate our own digital ecosystems is much more nuanced than it was when things were, well, a bit more new in our lives.

Data is a more dynamic measure of behaviour

Personas are static views of audience groups. They are best used once, for a particular design challenge – the invention of a new service, for example – and then thrown away. In reality, they get spun out to become the service’s personas with the intention of influencing decisions for years to come. However, once a service is up and running, live customer behavioural data should be the fuel for design decisions on a day-to-day basis.

Netflix is probably the best example of a company that uses data to drive everything from the presentation of the service to the shows in which it invests. Their global algorithm decides which titles you are shown when somebpdy signs in, based on grouping its titles into a couple of thousand “clusters” that based not on where people live, but on what they like. Netflix then assigns each subscriber three to five of these clusters, weighted by the degree to which each matches their taste. A recent Wired article describes Netflix’s approach to data as operating on one simple fact: “people are all different, but not in the ways you’d imagine”.

Customers aren’t the right focus for innovation  

Many teams have abandoned personas in favour of the jobs-to-be-done framework. Its creator, Clayton Christensen, believes the customer is the wrong unit of analysis for innovators to focus on. Instead, he suggests the focus should be on the job the customers are trying to get done and why they use a product. In effect, his framework keeps the goals, needs and behavioral aspects of the best personas (the “what” and “why” of understanding customers) and drops most of the “who” information found in demographic data and filler background stories.

The effect is that the character is eliminated in order to distill and clarify jobs, situational awareness, desired outcome states, motivation and triggers that tie all these concepts together. In a sense, it enables you to cut to the chase – precisely what we need in an agile, less waterfall, workflow.


All of this begs the question: if characterising your audience into personas is less and less relevant, what is the best way to embed users when designing a new service? For us, it comes back to our purposeful approach to design, as Sorcha explains in her article Purpose: the cornerstone of effective service design. This approach flips user needs on their heads and embodies them in purpose statement at every level of the design process, from service-level, to journey-level, right down to the pages and components themselves.

An effective purpose statement combines both business and user needs – after all, a user need without business benefit has little commercial benefit. It should unite all input for the design – from business, to user, to brand, to function – into something pithy, clear and actionable. For design processes that need to be fast and focused, we find these distilled beacons are far more useful than broad brush-stroked personas. Rather than characterising audiences, digital-age organisations should be focusing on specific strategic goals that can make a real impact to their businesses.


About the author:

Personas have suffered from what happens to most established design techniques – they get taken out of context and relied upon too much.