Fresh Ideas /

Personas without research: A double dose of the wrong medicine

#BuyerInsight, #CustomerExperience, #Personas, #Segmentation

We make our personas and our personas make us

Marshall McLuhan once said: “We make our tools and then our tools make us.” This is true of personas. We create them and then they become the de facto eyes and ears through which we understand our customers—and inspire innovation, market and sell products, and build customer experiences.

So, a word to the wise: If you’re setting out to make personas without first-rate strategic reasoning and first-rate research insights, the poor-quality personas that result may lead you into delivering a second-rate customer experience. And, what’s equally bad is that it may take you a long time before you figure out you’re off track.

There’s an analogy in the medical world that’s helpful in fully appreciating the risk of using bad personas to guide important decisions. It’s based on a recent medical discovery. Did you know you’re not supposed to wash down prescription medicine with grapefruit juice? As it turns out, we have an enzyme in our guts that acts as a natural defense against absorbing powerful chemical compounds; grapefruit juice suppresses that enzyme. So, you can accidentally get a double dose of medicine if you wash it down with grapefruit juice. The outcomes can be serious.

Deductive reasoning versus intuition

Just as our guts have a natural defense against absorbing chemicals that can harm us, our minds have a natural defense against absorbing information that can harm us. That natural defense is deductive reasoning. This deliberate kind of thinking subjects information to a variety of tests: the credibility of the source, the internal coherence of the information and its external consistency with memory and the evidence of the senses. When it comes to creativity, deduction’s strength is also its weakness. It’s not just good at killing bad ideas, it’s good at killing ideas, period. And it’s less useful than you might expect in generating brand new ones.

Fortunately, deduction is just one way that we relate to the world around us. There’s also the intuitive aspect of our minds. And that’s where personas come into play because they’re a fantastic way to speak directly to the intuitive mind. Much like grapefruit juice operates in digestion, personas help circumvent the locked-down nature of deductive thinking.

Personas come into play because they’re a fantastic way to speak directly to the intuitive mind.

We give priority to deductive, rational thinking—at least in Western cultures—but that isn’t necessarily an advantage in creative thinking. By injecting intuitive thinking into our processes, personas help balance the rational with the creative.

Intuition is a set of quick responses and pattern-building habits that produce the ideas that occur to us, as opposed to ideas we deliberately create. This includes new hypotheses, questions, hunches and snap judgments. The fancy name for this is “abduction,” but a common word is “intuition.” And, one of the great benefits of intuition is the sense of clarity with which it guides our thoughts and actions in situations that would be too fuzzy for reasoning alone.

This sense of intuitive clarity just happens to be one of the great benefits of using personas. Shlomo Goltz (@MoGoltz), in a recent article explaining personas and how they work, described his persona epiphany this way:

“Once I understood why personas were valuable and how they could be put into action, I started using them in my own work, and then something interesting happened: My process became more efficient and fun, while the fruits of my labor became more impactful and useful to others. Never before had I seen such a boost in clarity, productivity and success in my own work. Personas will supercharge your work, too, and help you take your designs to the next level.”

So, when should reason enter the picture?

We need to be mindful that not all personas deliver good medicine, and therein lies the risk.

If the persona’s story is created through a deliberate research process that brings to life fresh insight about the customer, it serves a tactical or strategic function, and the information is selected and organized to create empathy, then great.

We need to be mindful that not all personas deliver good medicine, and therein lies the risk.

On the other hand, in situations where we package up collated opinions and conjecture in the formal conventions of a persona, we risk misguiding and misdirecting our intuitions—and doing so with persona techniques that subvert the power of our rational, critical faculties to correct this misdirection.

This latter case is like taking the wrong medicine, and then washing it down with grapefruit juice. And that’s just plain dangerous.

The antidote

How broadly is this sort of misguided behavior occurring? An indicator might be the industry-leading thinking found in Michael Brenner’s recent blog post Personas Are Great (Except When They Suck). And, for a more quantitative measure that will assuage the more rational aspects of our thinking, there’s a statistic from a March 2014 ITSMA survey suggesting that only 15% of personas being created today are based on primary customer research.

If you’re using personas in your business, then it’s critical to ask yourself: are my personas harming or helping? Are they friends or foes? And, if you’re not sure, I invite you to check out my recent post, Avoid personas that suck, or send me a note at