(10 min read)

One of the biggest challenges in user-centered design is the user himself. To name it: he or she as a stereotype does not exist at all. By the way – from an economic point of view, which is closely linked with the design today, an orientation to just one person would be extremely unfavorable. But even if only one person would use an application, the behavior would not always be predictable. So designers always have to deal with a lot of different users who, to complicate things, have different behaviors in different contexts and different states. This complicates the attempt to describe the user in a simple way.

The Substitution Problem

For a long time, the persona method described in 1998 by Alan Cooper in his book The Inmates are Running the Asylum 1 for the development of IT systems, was also a standard for designers. The name “Persona” derived from the Latin “personare” = “sounding through”. It reminds us of a theatrical mask, through which the actor of ancient times spoke through and thus represented a character and not himself. The mask let the actor resign as a person and gave credibility to the role.

Fig. 1: ancient theatre mask. The voice sounded through the remarkably large mouth opening.

Cooper describes the persona as a method of consciously withdrawing oneself and speaking in the user’s sense by putting oneself in his or her role. The method was revolutionary at that time and quickly became standard. It turned against a technology-driven development of digital products, that ignores the problems and requirements of users for the benefit of (new) features and functions. By the way, anyone who thinks that the feature mindset does not exist today is unfortunately wrong. On the contrary, it seems to rekindle when new technologies are the main drivers of product development and thus build the focus. I am thinking in particular of StartUp products in the IoT- or AI-environment.

The persona perspective can generally be considered the key to the problem of “applied prejudice”. Of course, developers are not per se isolated in their thinking and in their discipline. Rather every representative of a discipline – if not every human being – is more or less shaped by his own experiences, abilities, limitations, desires and ideas. Here also the designer is not excluded. Although most designers know that they seldom design for themselves and their peers, but for others, it is actually not so easy to come out of your own experience.

A persona, used in the design process, can be understood as a proxy, clearly outlined by user research, through which the designer learns to better understand the user group of a product or service. Actually, that sounds like a good idea. Nevertheless, the voices rejecting the use of a persona become louder and louder. One possible cause of the misconception that one is dealing with a (fictional) person may be in the name of “persona”, which suggests that it is one person to invent. On the other hand, it has become unpopular in the modern, agile StartUp culture to make long investigations before finally holding the first product prototype in hand.

In fact, in the persona method, there is almost everything that is needed for a user-centered design, namely insights into the problem or task of specific users, their requirements, their wishes and their motives.

Vessel Does Not Equal Contents

Let’s take another look at what constitutes a persona. According to Cooper, it should be regarded as a vessel in which all relevant wishes of a matching user group have been filled. For a better understanding I strongly recommend the interview with Cooper on the occasion of a UX event in 2014 (start best by minute 12:05).

Fig. 2: Take the persona as a matryoshka, in which you fill in the relevant data of your user research.

Here is a short summary:

Design is solving a real problem in a real world. This presupposes that one knows problem, context and all actors involved. The task is “to observe real humans and not only what they try to accomplish, but as well why”.

Design research should deliver more than statistics. Once you go out and learned that, you need a way to express it.

The persona is a vessel of clustered goals. It includes desires and needs of defined user groups, influenced by contexts, abilities and goals.

If you take a look behind the scenes of persona development, you understand why it is used counterproductively in many cases. It is because it takes a lot of work and expertise to work with an applicable persona, not a run-of-the-mill stereotype. Cooper says:

“Do not confuse persona archetypes with stereotypes. Stereotypes are, in most respects, the antithesis of well-developed personas. Stereotypes are usually the result of designer or product team biases and assumptions, rather than factual data. Personas developed by drawing on inadequate research (or synthesized with insufficient empathy and sensitivity to interview subjects).” 2

In order to avoid the emergence of stereotypes a.k.a. “prejudices” that are nourished solely by one’s own imagination, but rather archetypes, a comprehensive user experience research is necessary. Cooper himself describes the following steps 2:

  1. Group interview subjects by role
  2. Identify behavioral variables
  3. Map interview subjects to behavioral variables
  4. Identify significant behavior patterns
  5. Synthesize characteristics and define goals
  6. Check for redundancy and completeness
  7. Designate persona types
  8. Expand description of attributes and behaviors

The method outlined here is extremely analytical in the guise of classical market research. In fact, a distinction must be made between market research and user research, and there is certainly a potential for a misinterpretation of personas.

Whereas the analysis of market segments always deliver demographics, the only may include segment size and value, as well as consumer skills, attitudes and behavior. The persona date always include skills, attitudes, behavior, mental models and goals of a user. Compared to market segment analysis, persona analysis only may include demographics.
Fig. 3: Differences in market segments and personas 3

Goodbye Demographics, Hello PDC

The restriction to demographic data and the results and methods of market research that puts consumers in categories such as “modern mainstream” or “performers” 4 are increasingly in doubt.

Lucas Schärf, founder of the Viennese agency Content Garden, in an interview with the German magazine “Werben und Verkaufen” notes that he doesn’t “give a damn about the Sinus Milieus”, … “One example: Donald Trump, Wayne Rooney and a Hells Angel have nothing to do with each other, as seen in the Sinus milieus. But if the three are afraid of hair loss, they may come together as customers of a special shampoo.” 5

The international trend analysis agency “Trend Watching” already spoke in 2014 of the departure into the so called Post-Demographic Consumerism (PDC).

“People – of all ages and in all markets – are constructing their own identities more freely than ever. As a result, consumption patterns are no longer defined by ‘traditional’ demographic segments such as age, gender, location, income, family status and more.” “In the UK, women now account for the majority of video game players, and there are more gamers aged over 44 than under 18.” (2014), or: “Twitter’s fastest growing demographic between 2012 and 2013 was the 55-64 year age bracket, growing 79%.” (2013) 6

We are no longer living in the 50s and 60s, where clearly defined gender and generation roles belonged to contemporary amenities and every differentness made for negative conversation material. On the contrary: we live today in an age in which being differently receives attention and increasing acceptance.

At the SXSW 2015 in Austin, Texas, Todd Yellin (Netflix) talked about the disruption of the traditional demographic market research: “We put that in the garbage heap (…) Because, here’s a shocker for you, there are actually 19-year-old guys who watch ‘Dance Moms’, and there are 73-year-old women who are watching ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Avengers’.” 7

In fact, an overarching value-oriented approach, such as that of sinus8 or sigma 9, offers more than demographics, but little or no statement about a specific problem that can be solved by a product. What is missing here is the explicit representation of a customer/user journey or a scenario in which problem and solution can be described and varied.


The saying “People do not want six-millimeter drills, they want six-millimeter-sized holes in the walls.” 10, shows that people are primarily concerned with the fulfillment of a task or solution, as Harward Business School professor Theodore Levitt has said, they are interested in a problem and not in a product. It therefore makes sense to focus on the jobs users want to outsource.

The Jobs-to-be-Done theory formulated in the 1980s later became popular through the JTBD framework of management professor Clay Christensen. His argument is that people do not buy products but “hire” them to do a job. 11

In his book “When Coffee and Kale Compete: Become great at making products people want to buy.”, Alan Klement very vividly shows how little a classical persona helps to understand the actual motivation of a user, if it is not geared towards it.

The figure compares with an ironical touch two possible reasons for a fictional customer named Allan, to buy a chockolate bar: a) because he wants to satsify his roaring hunger, b) because he fits to a demographic pattern, namely age of 35, owning a marketing degree, with active lifestyle, co-living with a girlfriend, liking chockolate, driving a Honda and with retirement plans before becomimg 56.
Fig. 4: Own graphic based on: Klement, A. (2018) 12

In this respect, the classical persona must certainly be more clearly oriented towards motivations, goals and barriers.

Think in Scenarios

Lene Nielsen, Denmark’s specialist in personas, describes an approach that leads in this direction 13:

  1. Collection of data from many different sources (which could be intenal as well).
  2. Hypothesis formulation of the various users within the focus area of the project.
  3. Hypothesis questioning by confronting project participants with it and comparing it to existing knowledge.
  4. The final number of personas is established (which means there could be more than one – and e.g. vice versa one stands for more).
  5. Persona description, that express enough understanding and empathy for the readers to understand the users (i.e. no expert vocabulary).
  6. Description of specific situations that could trigger use of the product as basis or precursors, of a scenario (if this – then that).
  7. Acceptance from the organization with the involvement of stakeholders, colleagues and participants.
  8. Dissemination of the persona descriptions to all project participants (to get the full acceptance and a common knowledge about the humans you are designing/developing for).
  9. Scenario preparation – the story about how the persona uses a future product (which can serve for the transition into user-journeys and UX-maps).
  10. On-going adjustments roughly once a year (which shows that the persona isn’t just a time-limited tool for the concept phase).

Again, this approach requires time, work and resources, but has two benefits:

  1. Project participants, stakeholders and potential users are included in the modeling of personas, experiencing their emergence and thus taking it more seriously and as contemporary.
  2. Personas do not remain clinical persons, but are placed in a scenic context, in which they solve a problem with the product to be developed. Here you can weave in the JTBD-approach.

Persona Reloaded

Let’s summarize the developments and influences according personas.

Beware Bias

Today, even more than before, it makes sense to be aware as a producer, designer and developer that you do not design for yourself just serving your one and only and thus indeed limited values, ideas and abilities. This way of thinking leads to unwelcome bias with displeasing effects for the user.


To make use of as many diverse perspectives as you can, it makes sense to integrate beyond research experts, team members, users and stakeholders. The agreeable side effect is an enduring common knowledge amongst team and stakeholders.

Find Jobs-To-Be-Done

In order to find out for which job a user would like to hire a product or service, one must deal with it. Today it is no longer sufficient to derive assumptions from socio-demographic data. This model is obsolete. Rather, it is about understanding problems in complex contexts and scenarios. This requires mainly data from qualitative analysis in the form of observation, interviews, discussions and participatory, iterative design with the user.

There should be time, ressources and budget reserved for user research in a project. But the important thing is that as a designer, you do not rely solely on your creativity, but that you go out to learn what is important to others. Speak with your target group before you have your own idea about the product or service to be designed. Ask for daily routines and corresponding desires. Ask people if you can accompany them in everyday life to understand their reality. Find patterns in problems and requirements – independently from your expectations based on age-, gender- or whatsoever-clichés.

Embrace Society

Today’s digital technology-based products and services are not just targeted to the desired user group, but have often enough side effects on the surrounding society. We can say that user-centric, personalized design – directed on the individual’s benefit and convenience – has brought us today’s problems to a significant degree. The consequences are, ego-centric expectations and lifestyles, inability to constructive discussion or compromise, not to mention environmental degradation because of the resource-hungry production and maintenance of technology based lifestyles.

The narrowing of personal perspectives is opposed to the desire for the acceptance of one’s own individual expression of society. People break out of previous social conventions and role models. Everyone – regardless of their background, financial status, gender or physical and mental condition – should have the right to social participation.

Design should hear the call for acceptance and inclusion in an open, tolerant society and consider it a crucial design task for the future.

The figure shows the three levels of design focus: 1. Identity Centred, which concentrates on personality, values and targets; 2. Problem Centred with a focus on problems, goals, stories and scenarios; 3. Society Centred with focus on inclusion and co-existence, environment and futures.
Fig. 5: The three different persona domains – identity-, problem- and society-centred.

Forget About Templates

Please resist the attempts to fill out one of the countless chic persona templates. 14 The problem with templates is “template addiction”. We live in a ready-to-go society. There is an app, a tool, a card deck, a canvas for everything. Those resources are used like in thoughtless affect because they have made it to a kind of standard and promise an efficient straightforward result. Especially in design processes I observe this tools to be applied with hilarious seriousness. Of course there are persona templates available. Just have a look at them: There is a field for the name, der age and a lot more crap steamed together, garnished with the persona’s motto of the day. That doesn’t make any sense. Rather ask yourself, what you would really need to know about your user representatives. For the beginning you might like to ask yourself, what you would have needed to know but missed to ask about the user in your last project to improve it. You might be astonished, how quick you assemble your own persona argumentation-grid, wich can be transferred in the next steps naturally into a user experience map.

Mission Possible

However you want to name it: Persona, Inclusive Design, JTBD, Design Thinking, … look in heaven’s sake at your target group and draw the adequate consequences for strategy, concept, design, production and disposal. I do not mean that anything that users consider a problem needs to be resolved as they expect it to be. But only if you know the world you are designing for, you can actually positively influence it. And believe me, the world is, lives, thinks and feels completely different than you assume it to be. Have fun with the dialogue with your persona.


  1. Cooper, A: The Inmates are Running the Asylum, Sams Publishing, 2004
  2. Understanding Personas – An Interview with Alan Cooper (Cascade SF 2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7ljzXB40hw (last accessed on 16.11.19)
  3. Cooper, Alan; Reimann, Robert; Cronin, David; Noessel, Christopher. About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design (Position 2190-2194). Wiley. Kindle-Version.
  4. Goodwin, K., Designing for the Digital Age. (2009) Wiley Publishing, Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana. Kindle, Seite 236, Position 7011 of 17818
  5. https://www.sinus-institut.de/en/sinus-solutions/sinus-milieus/ (last accessed on 16.11.19)
  6. https://www.wuv.de/marketing/warum_bei_native_advertising_so_viel_schief_laeuft (last accessed on 16.11.19)
  7. https://trendwatching.com/trends/post-demographic-consumerism/ (last accessed on 16.11.19)
  8. Netflix goes beyond demographics, WARC News, 27 March 2015 https://www.warc.com/NewsAndOpinion/News/34519? (last accessed on 16.11.19)
  9. https://www.sinus-institut.de/en (last accessed on 16.11.19)
  10. http://www.sigma-online.com/en/Home/ (last accessed on 16.11.19)
  11. Christensen, C., Cook, S., Hall, T.: Wünsche erfüllen statt Produkte verkaufen. 2006, in: Harvard Business Manager, Heft 3, 2006 https://www.harvardbusinessmanager.de/heft/d-45933576.html (last accessed on 16.11.19).
  12. Christensen Institute: Jobs to Be Done. https://www.christenseninstitute.org/jobs-to-be-done/, (last accessed on 16.11.19)
  13. Klement, A. (2018), When Coffee and Kale Compete: Become great at making products people will buy. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
  14. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-encyclopedia-of-human-computer-interaction-2nd-ed/personas (last accessed on 16.11.19)
  15. Tran, T., 5 essentials for your user persona template (30.09.2019), https://www.invisionapp.com/inside-design/user-persona-template/ (last accessed on 16.11.19)


Fig1: Theatre mask. Sketch by Andrea Krajewski. Feel free to use it under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Fig2: Matryoschka. Sketch by Andrea Krajewski. Feel free to use it under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Fig3: Redrawn illustration from the book: Cooper, Alan; Reimann, Robert; Cronin, David; Noessel, Christopher. About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design (Position 2190-2194). Wiley. Kindle-Version. (C) belongs to the authors and ist shown here under scientific citation right.

Fig4: Illustration on the basis of a figure from the book: Klement, A. (2018), When Coffee and Kale Compete: Become great at making products people will buy. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Fig5: Three persona domains. Sketch by Andrea Krajewski. Feel free to use it under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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