The Problem of Personas

Personas are dead. They are lifeless pages hanging on a wall, screaming out to designers and stakeholders alike: "Design for real people! (like me?)."

But as we look at the mugshots of the personas we construct, we battle against the knowledge that this isn't a real person. It doesn't matter how much research went into the personas, or how well the content is written. Even when a fantastic visual design is applied, personas still feel like motionless pieces of paper dangling from a wall.

I thought I was the only one who viewed personas so critically, but after working with a few other UX Designers at Clearleft, it turns out other designers are disappointed with personas as well.

Getting to The Heart of Personas

If we step back and look at the role that personas are playing, I think the word 'proxy' gets pretty close. Proxy is defined as 'the authority given to a person to act on behalf of someone else'.

The word 'empathy' gets thrown around a lot in design circles, but creating empathy really is the main goal of personas and user proxies in general. In order to find the right design and get the design right, we need to care about the people we are trying to help.

In that case, how confident are we in personas' ability to act on behalf of real users and create empathy in team members and project stakeholders?

The Inciting Incident

I lost confidence in personas a while back, and on August 3rd, I embarked on a 90-day journey with a company that encourages all of its designers to experiment with process. That company is called Clearleft.

One of the things I love about Clearleft is the value of 'sharing what you learn'. In that spirit I thought I would share what I learned in experimenting with user proxies and storytelling.

Long Live The Heroes!

Positioning the user as the hero in a human-centered design process provides a natural way to evoke empathy from the design team and from project stakeholders. Using some loose narrative structure and story elements, we are able to communicate insights, decisions and implications with a language that all humans understand: Story.

Even as children we have an innate understanding of stories. Many stories dramatize the complexities that we face in our daily life, but the themes are there: Purpose, mission, struggle, enemies, allies, perseverance, motivation, triumph, death—the list goes on. If children are able to grasp such difficult parts of life through stories, what would that imply for us as adults?

Some designers argue that storytelling diminishes both the design process and the craft of storytelling. While I would agree that equating design with storytelling is a lossy comparison, I think that leaving storytelling out of the design process is lossy as well.

I am not saying that design is storytelling. Story is a tool we can use as designers to solve real problems for real people. That's what design is about, isn't it? It's about solving real problems for real people.

A Character Has A Problem

One of my favorite narrative structures is a simple one by an American author named Donald Miller. In a great eBook called "How To Tell A Story," Donald says that a story is when:

A character has a problem, then meets a guide who gives them a plan and calls them to action. That action either results in a comedy or tragedy.

If we are talking about solving real problems for real people, could we start in a better place? The inciting incident for our narrative is 'a character has a problem'. That's where design begins.

We (as designers) are the guide. The plan we give them is our proposed solution. We call them to action and communicate that "we have a solution for your problem." It is the hero's duty (the customer / user) to respond to that call. They might refuse the call at first, but often their reservations are assuaged by the way we continue to communicate our understanding of their problem and the value that our solution holds for them.

The end result is one of two options—either the problem is solved, or it is not.

Where The Magic Lies

The magic in this narrative structure is between the first clause ('a character has a problem'), and the second ('then meets a guide who gives them a plan'). The space between the first clause and the second is the design process. That is where we as designers emerge with empathy and understanding of real problems afflicting real people. That is where we use heroes as proxies in our design process to propel our critical facilities towards a solution.

All the classic divergent and convergent design thinking still applies, all the principles about design decisions still hold true. The major difference is that we're motivated by a passionate desire to help the hero succeed, knowing very well that if our solution doesn't solve their problem the story will end in tragedy.

You know that feeling you get when you're engrossed in a great story and you are transported from your world to theirs? You know that feeling you get when your entire being longs for a hero to succeed—to overcome their obstacles, to beat the bad guy and save the day?

That's the feeling I'm after. That's what I think makes great design. Call it empathy, call it courage, call it whatever you want...

Marc Rettig writes about a similar phenomena in a great article called Culture Work. He describes being transported from the confines of our perspective to the edge of our world in order to perceive new insights. Marc argues this transformation of perspective is necessary for us to achieve as designers.

That perspective shift can be achieved by positioning the user as a hero at the center of a design process. It can be achieved by creating relationships with the people you are trying to help in your design, and it can be achieved by creating shared understanding amogst team members and stakeholders about the problems you are trying to solve.


In experimenting with our design process, we learned that positioning the user as a hero is an effective and powerful tool to evoke empathy and create shared understanding amongst team members and project stakeholders. What we once perceived as lifeless personas hanging on a wall became a living hero that grew and evolved amongst our discussions, workshops and activities.

When we viewed our users as heroes we fell into playing the role of a guide, and that seemed to be a great place from which we designed solutions for our user's needs. We wanted to access our hero's untapped potential and help them achieve their goals amidst all obstacles.

It was a fun an fruitful experiment—one that I hope to continue in the future...

Oh, and as a final note: My provocation about personas being dead—I meant that literally. Whether or not heroes are more effective as user proxies is another question. Why don't you try it out and see for yourself?

(This post first appeared on