Personas Suck | November 15, 2007

The thing I like about Jason Fried and 37 Signals is their tight focus on what they do. They are at once their own clients, customers and dev team. This gives them a great deal of freedom when it comes to features, functionality and process. However companies like 37 Signals are definitely in the minority, and most of us have to deal with much wider range of issues and stakeholders.

The problem I have with 37 Signals is their style of writing. If you’ve read their book or any of their posts, the stuff they talk about is rarely presented in the context of their specific working environment. More often it’s presented in terms of absolutes. I’m never sure whether this is merely stylistic, a desire to create link bait, or the result of a lack of empathy. In truth it’s probably a mix of all three.

Quite often I find that they misappropriate cause and affect. For instance, they had a developer in Europe and their first project was a success, therefore the geographic location of their developer was partly responsible for that success. In reality the guys at 37 Signals are really smart, and would have been a success whatever process, language or geographic set-up they had. However there is a tendency with genius design not to realise that’s actually what you’re doing, and attribute success to other factors. Sort of like the Olympic medalist who attributes her success to a lucky charm rather than raw talent and years of experience.

A good example of this didactic style can be witnessed in Jason’s recent post about Personas. As the article explains, 37 Signals don’t need to use personas because they are essentially building products for themselves. However because personas present no value to 37 Signals, they suddenly seem to present no value at all.

Jason argues that personas aren’t real people. You can’t ask them questions and they can’t tell you when they get frustrated or when something is wrong. This is all true, but its also misdirection because this doesn’t actually have anything to do with the value of personas.

For a start, personas don’t substitute the need to do your homework, talk to real people and test your assumptions on a live audience. In fact, the best personas are created out of exactly this type of research. As Jared Spool rightly points out, you shouldn’t mistake crappy personas for personas being crap.

I totally agree that you don’t need personas if you’re building something for people like yourself. However in an agency environment you don’t usually end up building sites for other web designer. In the past year we’ve build sites for everybody from scientists and teachers to environmental activists and mobile game buffs.

The problem many companies face is that they think they are building the site for people like themselves, when in fact they aren’t. A 40 year old technical director will have a very different outlook on life than a 16 year old girl. In fact, time and again our field research has shown that client assumptions about their market can differ substantially from the market itself.

So research is definitely important, but how does this feed back into the persona argument? Well, if you’re a small company and all your team have immediate access to your user base, maybe it’s easy to ring a few people up and ask their opinions at every step of the way. However for larger companies, personas are a really useful tool for summarising and circulating the results of your user research. They are also a great way for framing internal discussions about user requirements. So rather than talking about a homogenous “user”, you can talk about “Bob” or “Mary”. Personally, I find personas are most helpful during the discovery phase, when you’re building up domain experience and empathy with the users.

That being said, personas are just one of a number of tools at our disposal. I don’t think any user experience person worth their salt would say that persoans are required on every project. Furthermore, it’s very easy to overstate the importance of personas. In fact, this is something we’ve been guilty of in a few recent projects. The biggest problem with personas is the fact that they often become just another deliverable and end up sitting in a draw unused.

I think the argument about personas is ultimately one of context. It’s ludicrous to argue the merits of a screwdriver without knowing the situation. A screwdriver is great if you’re extracting screws, but useless if you’re trying to undo a bolt! Similarly, if you’re building a site for a group of web designers, you probably don’t need personas, whereas if you’re building a site for a group of doctors, they could come in handy.

But I guess being logical and rational doesn’t create the same stir as being sensational, hence the title of this post.

Posted at November 15, 2007 1:34 PM


pauldwaite said on November 15, 2007 2:08 PM

I suspect it’s not just 37 Signals that use this style of writing. Talking in absolutes means you don’t have to mention caveats; it streamlines the writing. It produces a confident and, to some, persuasive tone.

Hopefully, it only confuses idiots. Of course, there are a lot of idiots out there that the rest of us have to deal with :)

Sean Johnson said on November 15, 2007 2:34 PM

I totally agree - I was thinking much of the same when I read that article.

Leisa Reichelt said on November 15, 2007 4:20 PM

hear! hear!
Well said Andy.

Søren Thuesen said on November 15, 2007 4:49 PM

You are far from alone here Andy - I came to the exact same conclusion when I read the post yesterday. It’s quite obvious that Jason Fried (and the rest of the ‘team’) urge to manipulate by sensation - admittedly they did succeed in convincing an entire community that simplicity is beautiful… and better, but in this particular case I must say it sounds more like lack of experience in large scale projects than a revolutionary concept.

I honestly dig products comming from 37 signals, but as long as they are their own customer, it’s a bit easy to skip the process of analasis and understanding between agency and customer.

aj said on November 15, 2007 5:22 PM

I can understand wanting to keep a focus — and not succumb to featuritis. I remember having an email exchange with Jason about whether having an actual graphical calendar view would be useful, and he replied something like “well we don’t see the need for one,” even though everyone I knew that was using Basecamp was crying for it. Eventually they put it in, but probably only grudgingly. In fact if anything bugs me about BC and the 37signals house style, is that it’s overly text-heavy. Sometimes a picture (or a chart, or a graph) is worth 1000 words, guys.

Speaking just in general, not about 37signals specifically — there is a tendency among people who’ve had success in one area to believe they will have success in all other areas; and it’s been documented recently that people with quantifiably less knowledge about a subject often think they know way more than they actually do.

I am reminded of the time a friend of mine — an author who specializes in the subject of urbanism and the looming energy crisis — gave a talk at Google, only to be met with a “but, like, we’ll have TECHNOLOGY to fix all that” attitude. Google kids (and they ARE kids) might be smart at designing custom microprocessors to optimize search algorithms or whatever, but the idea that technology does not equal energy didn’t seem to have occurred to them.

Dan Griffiths said on November 15, 2007 5:30 PM

I enjoy using Basecamp and it has become an important part of our business. I read “Getting Real” and enjoyed a lot of the points made in the book. But in recent days I have also got tired of the no exceptions approach to their writing. Context is so important and as a result what is good for one company may not work for another.

It is a shame that many of their posts seem to lean towards controversy as opposed to an objective point of view.

Bryce Johnson said on November 15, 2007 5:31 PM

Well said Andy. I believe you speak for alot of us.

Mathew Patterson said on November 15, 2007 11:25 PM

I can see why people get upset about this.

To be fair to 37Signals, they have said over and over again that everything they publish is about what works for them, and that you should assume that it won’t apply in every case.

As long as you read it keeping that in mind, your blood pressure will stay within safe limits.

Nick Toye said on November 16, 2007 10:18 PM

Hmm, screwdrivers again.

Be interesting to see what Jason thinks of this post? But I would guess he wouldn’t care less. He is successful, as Simon Cowell is successful. Granted not on the same scale, but you can say what you like about Cowell, criticise him it means nothing to him. As long as Jason sells products he is not going to change his approach or his personna.

Jason Fried said on November 17, 2007 6:10 PM

Just as an FYI… Right at the beginning of our book (Caveats, disclaimers, and other preemptive strikes) we say that our ideas don’t work for everyone in every situation.

We don’t believe in extremes, but we’re not going to add caveats to every single thing we say all the time. That leads to watered down “it depends” writing which takes no positions and ultimately adds little value. Of course there are exceptions. And of course it depends. We assume reasonable people keep this in mind when they read anyone’s ideas.

As one of the commenters correctly said above, we simply share the things that work well for us. We don’t expect that they’ll work for everyone. But we do think it’s important and healthy to share opinionated perspectives that aren’t mainstream. To assume our way is wrong is as wrong as assuming your way is wrong. There are different ways to do things.

Andy Budd said on November 17, 2007 6:48 PM

The problem is you’ve built up a sizeable following and a lot of people do believe whatever you say, whether you like it or not. If Jason Fried says that personas suck, then personas must suck.

And I honestly think that stating opinions as fact is a dangerous form of rhetoric best left to the politicians. But that’s just my opinion ;-)

Jason Fried said on November 17, 2007 11:56 PM

Andy, maybe one of the big differences between you and I is that I think people are smart enough to make up their own minds about what they believe. They can take in multiple points of view, mix them up with their own experiences, and churn our their own answers.

You seem to think people just read a blog post and say “Well if he says it is has to be true!” And while the tiniest minority may behave that way, the majority doesn’t. Give other people a little credit. If you’re smart enough to think for yourself then your neighbor probably is too. Unless of course you think you’re special and other people just aren’t as intelligent as you are.

Also if, as you suggest, people believe whatever I say, and I’ve been saying for years that “there are many different ways do to things, we’re just here to share our way, your mileage may vary” then I don’t know what you’re so worried about. Or do they only believe some of the things I say? If that’s the case then they’re thinking for themselves. But that would punch a hole in your theory.

Last thing before I bow out here…”Personas suck” are your words, not mine. You won’t find that phrase anywhere in my post. Put words in your mouth, not mine.

Andy Budd said on November 19, 2007 10:31 AM

I’m not saying that at all Jason, and you know it. I just thought it was worth putting forward a fair and balanced argument to counter your somewhat broad sweeping and dismissive pronouncements.

If people have used personas before, of course they’re in a position to judge. What I’m more concerned about is people who haven’t used them before being put off by your opinions.

This has nothing to do with people not being able to make up their own minds, but you have to accept that your opinions carry weight. However nice attempt at turning the conversation around. You’ve always been very good at the rhetoric ;-)

Laura Francis said on November 20, 2007 2:46 PM

I’ve read both Jason and Jared’s views on personas and found both really interesting. Having engaged in this debate more than once with my own team its great for me to have some ‘evidence’ on both sides to put forward.

I agree with Jason that people should be able to make up their own minds, but also with Andy that very rarely they do. I all too often hear developers say “well so and so says to do it like this”, or “[insert name] says that you should NEVER do that”. It reminds be of the saying “With great power comes great responsiblity”, sadly when you become a “household” name (household in the sense that any developer worth their salt should have heard of 37 Signals) people take what you say literally, and that power over them should be used responsibly.

All good though, and its true, personas can be abused and too much weight given to them. They will not and should not ever replace real user testing, but, if you can’t afford (for whatever reason) to do that (or if you aren’t the target audience) then they can provide a useful insight when used responsibly. That’s my opinion anyway!

Keith said on November 20, 2007 8:10 PM

I’ve read both Jason and Jared’s posts on personas and, like you, I think their value greatly depends on the project and team (etc.) So, yes, it’s a problem of context. As is the issue of Jason’s writing style, in my opinion.

To that end, I think I’m siding with Jason in regards to his writing style, even though I often find myself not agreeing or being rubbed the wrong way by it.

I think I’m smart enough to suss out how his thoughts apply (or don’t) to my own work and frankly I appreciate him making strong points for me to ponder over. As well, I’ve got a certain context to guide me when reading something he’s written. If he changed his ways, well, then I’d be really confused.

I think that’s because I take the time to read and think about what he’s saying. I think about who it’s coming from and all that goes along with that. Reading Jason Fried without that would be…well, pointless.

Jason Fried is just a guy. He holds no special knowledge outside of his own experience. This isn’t a knock, only an observation. The same can be said for many like him. If you don’t like his writing style, fine - but I don’t feel he should be somehow obligated to change that style because some people don’t take the time to read and think about what he’s writing.

I don’t feel it should be Jason’s (or any other blogger’s) obligation to water down their own opinion so it can be easier digested by their readers. Sure, if they make a business or personal decision to do that - then fine, but clearly that’s not important to them and I see that as a decision to be made by the person doing the writing, not the reader. He’s not explaining brain surgery here.

I don’t know - I guess I’m kind of sick and tired of all the hand holding. People should be able to make opinionated statements without having to caveat it all the time. As well, readers should take a bit more responsibility on themselves to understand the context in which something is being said and who it’s coming from.

Jeff Croft said on November 21, 2007 1:31 AM

To say I’ve been known to publicly disagree with Jason Fried would be a drastic understatement (which, in reality, is misleading — I agree with him more often than not, I just rarely choose to comment on his posts when they’re totally agreeable to me).

But, in this case, I think I agree with him (and Keith). I’ve been criticized for my writing style, too (and rightfully so, in many cases). But those of us who have sort of abrasive writing styles can’t forget that it is part of what got our blogs read in the first place.

The problem is you’ve built up a sizeable following and a lot of people do believe whatever you say, whether you like it or not. If Jason Fried says that personas suck, then personas must suck.

Asking someone to change their writing style because they now have a bunch of readers who act more as disciples, believing anything they say with blind faith, is a bit like asking Eminem not to cuss on his records anymore because there are now lots of kids listening. Eminem didn’t set out to be a role model — he just said what was on his mind, and people liked it. The same goes for Jason Fried, I think. He speaks his mind in the best (only?) way he knows how, and a lot of people find themselves nodding in agreement to a lot of the things he talks about.

To make another analogy, I met a girl who was attracted to me in large part because she enjoyed my flirty, playful nature. After we started dating more seriously, she expected me to stop being flirty and playful, despite the fact that it was what attracted her to me in the first place.

These analogies aren’t perfect, I know — but the point is, Jason is just being Jason. Sometimes he’ll rub people the wrong way and sometiems he’ll say things that are over the top, because that’s just who he is (and, I’m realizing, it’s very much who I am, too).

You can’t really ask him to change any more than we can ask you to stop being so darn nice and polite all the time, Andy. :)