What to do if there are already personas

Companies that have been around for a few years have probably tried personas. And if they have tried personas, chances are those personas failed in some way, because so many persona efforts do. You are going to have to address both the old personas themselves and the negative impressions the previous persona effort left in the minds of your colleagues.

If there was a previous persona effort at your company, either:

  • Someone other than you wants to try again
  • You are the one who wants to try again.

If someone other than you wants to try personas again, work with them to articulate the goals of the new persona effort (see below).

If you are the one who wants to try again, focus on the ways Alignment Personas (both the process and the deliverables) are different than the previous personas. While both are called personas, they are very different. Your best bet is to:

No matter who initiates renewed interested in personas, you must figure out why the personas didn’t work before, and why they are wanted now. If you can do that, you’ll be well on your way to a new set of personas created and deployed in a new way to solve a well-defined set of problems.

Find out why there’s a renewed interest in personas.

Ask “what problem are we trying / wanting to solve with the personas? And why do we think personas will solve said problem?” Keep asking why several times until you get to a specific answer.

Examples of non-specific answers that won’t help you:

  • To get more customer- or user-focused.
  • To get everyone on the same page.
  • To get more data into our decision-making.

Follow answers like these with “why?” until you get to much more specificity.

A useful, specific answer might sound like this:

“I don’t think this specific section of our website/aspect of our product/part of our services really makes sense, and I can’t find a good reason that it is the way it is, but I also can’t get anyone to understand it’s a problem. I’m hoping personas will help me communicate/solve this problem without getting me and everyone around me fired — and it would be even better if the personas could help us solve the problem too.”

Articulate why the old personas won’t help now.

If someone other than you is initiating a new persona effort, ask why the old personas won’t help with the current problem, and/or for specific reasons why the old personas aren’t ‘good’ anymore. You’ll probably hear things like:

  • The market or data or users or customers have changed, so the personas don’t represent them anymore.
  • No one pays attention to the personas, so they must be wrong.
  • I don’t trust that the old personas really do represent the data.
  • I have no idea how the old personas were created, or what they were created for, so I don’t know that they will apply to the problems I’m trying to solve.

Educate yourself about the old personas and the way they were created and used

Go find out more about the ‘old’ personas. Who created them? For what reason? How did they do it? How much did the persona effort cost? Did they work at all, ever? If so, how, for what project or department? In what specific ways did they ‘work?’ You’ll probably find at least one of the following:

  • Someone in a position of power read or heard about personas and thought they were a great idea and funded a project — often without super-specific reasons for doing so.
  • Someone without tons of power did a skunkworks project to create personas and try to drive them ‘up’ in the organization, without real success.
  • Marketing created personas ‘for’ marketing, or a product team created personas ‘for’ a product or products.
  • Someone hired an agency to create the personas — usually with a hefty price tag and as a deliverable after a major data collection and analysis project.

Do a complete assessment and report on it.

Given what you’ve learned, is there any reason to think that ‘refreshing’ the personas in some way will solve the problem that the stakeholder has? Personas are not magic. Fresh data does not make them magical. They are a tool that either works or it doesn’t. A hammer doesn’t work on a screw (just as personas won’t solve a problem that can’t be solved with a persona). And a hammer doesn’t help much if your goal is to ‘build a house’ (just as personas won’t help with a huge, unspecific goal like ‘get more customer-focused).

Pull out that old quote: the true definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Personas are amazing, killer, hugely impactful tools. They can be built to live almost forever. But they only work if they are created and applied to solve specific, persona-solvable problems. And they only work if they actually make people’s lives easier in the organization.

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