The problems with personas

Corbet Fawcett
6 min readNov 12, 2018


Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

These are the things I wish someone had shared with me before I launched my first persona research project.

There are lots of articles on doing persona research, but what I learned through a couple of amazing, perspective-altering projects is that doing the research is just the tip of the iceberg. And true to any iceberg analogy, there are some hidden dangers. These project-sinkers get less attention when people talk about persona research, and they can dictate whether your research happens in the first place or whether it succeeds when it does. So let’s talk about them. Let’s talk about what happens before and after the research.

Hard-won lessons

I’ve seen persona projects fall prey to three big issues: Cost, validity, and delivery. Each one of these can skuttle your research project and doom it to gathering dust…if it gets off the ground at all. Cost and validity issues strike projects before they even begin. Delivery issues creep in at the end.

Cost — it’s not what you think

If you’re trying to plan a persona research project, at some point it’s almost inevitable that you will need to ask for budget. That may be a tough conversation, because somewhere in your chain of approvals you may encounter people who don’t understand what problem you’re solving and why it’s worth the investment.

Personas are a lot of work to create, which translates to “expensive.” Don’t believe me? Here’s some napkin math I did for a hypothetical persona project.

Yes, that total is edging on $40,000. The research seems affordable until you factor in the people cost. If you dedicate two team members to the project for its duration, that adds up quickly. And this estimate is straight cost: You also need to factor in reduced productivity on other projects while the research is happening — a heavy secondary cost.

Depending on the size of your organization $40k might be small change, or it could be bigger than your entire annual budget. Regardless, anything with that sort of price tag is going to have to pass scrutiny.

One of the big questions you’ll need to answer is “why are we doing this?” This is shortform for a slightly different question: “What problem are we trying to solve, and is it worth the money?” This is the question you really need to answer.

Your approvers aren’t just looking for a cost estimate for your project — they’re probably also looking for the cost of the problem you’re trying to solve. To get budget approval for our hypothetical project you would need to convince the Powers That Be at your organization that you have a $40k problem that needs solving.

That’s the million dollar question, or rather the $40k question.

This is critical: Budget isn’t just about the cost of the research, it’s also about the cost of the business problem. Realizing this can be critical to making a successful pitch for your research project…or even making a pitch at all. Do you have a $40k problem?

Persona research is incredibly fascinating but few of us are in a position to do research for the sake of research. This means we can’t look at personas as an end goal — personas are a tool to achieve a goal. Personas should solve a real business problem. That’s the goal you can pitch when you ask for budget, and the goal you should measure your research against.

This is where I’ve seen project pitches fail entirely or get bounced back for more investigation. They haven’t established that the proposed research is answering a need that’s big enough to warrant the research cost.

Put another way: Research cost must be lower than problem cost.

Otherwise your research probably won’t make it through approvals, not because of its raw dollar cost but because it costs more than the problem it solves. That’s what “expensive” means in this context.

We’ll talk more about the practicalities of cost:benefit in part two of this post.

Validity — Qualitative versus Quantitative

There are different ways of producing personas. The research can be pure “qual” (qualitative) or a blended approach of qual and “quant” (quantitative). The former can be quicker and cheaper than a blended approach so it holds a lot of appeal. But in a heavily qualitative approach the very nature of your research can create problems for your project pitch. The issue: Somewhere in your chain of approvals may be people who don’t grok qualitative research.

This is natural, but sometimes challenging. Many senior leaders spend their days reviewing reports with sample sizes in the thousands. They’re used to marketing research, Google Analytics reports, Big Data insights. In this context smaller scale research can feel less valid because it doesn’t come with “statistical significance.” The lack of hard numbers reads as a lack of certainty. If you’re pitching to people like this, understand that they may be more comfortable with quantitative data. Research with smaller numbers may not be an easy sell. This means you have to establish the validity and value of a qualitative approach or risk a hard “no” to your research proposal.

Again, more on the ‘how’ in part 2 of this post.

Delivery — the need for action

So far we’ve touched on issues that determine whether you get to do persona research in the first place. I’ve seen one other big issue derail persona projects, and it may be the toughest challenge of all. Implementation.

Even when you pull off the research, your results can die a quiet death.

[Image by Geralt on Pixabay]

This is a problem with delivery.

Let’s say you’ve planned your project, pitched it successfully, run your research, analyzed the results, and developed a set of personas. What then? Some presentations, some posters, maybe a set of persona icons to use in wireframes…these are the standard deliverables for a project like this. The problem I’ve seen with these is that they’re passive. They are things that inform people, but informing isn’t enough because moving from information to action is hard. To be truly successful, your research needs to help people actively use your new personas in their jobs every single day.

Your true product is change. Not a poster or a presentation.

In hindsight this was an issue even in the most successful persona project I worked on. Two years after we introduced our personas they still weren’t fully integrated into our design processes, let alone adopted by other teams we worked with.

So what keeps people from using personas?

  • Poor design — the results don’t help them make decisions.
  • Investment — people don’t feel invested because they weren’t involved in the planning or research.
  • Confidence — people question the results because they didn’t see the underlying work.
  • ‘Stickiness’ — the results aren’t easy to recall and use.

The good news? These are all things you can plan and solve for.

The first three can be handled in the planning and research phases. The last requires a different approach to delivery. Sitting in on a single results presentation will have little impact on teams — it’s a weak signal. People will be interested during the presentation but have no easy way to translate the insights into informed action on a day-to-day basis. What’s needed is a stronger signal, a more sustained campaign for introducing your personas to your team and organization, with an active approach to helping people integrate them into their daily work.

How? More in part two.


I’m a big fan of personas. The research projects I’ve worked on have been some of the most insightful and rewarding experiences in my career. But they — along with the projects that never got approval — also taught me some important lessons:

  • To get a research project off the ground you need to be able to show you’re solving a real business problem that costs your organization more than the research itself.
  • To get approvals from people outside of UX you may need to prove that qualitative research is both valid and the right method for the problem you’re trying to solve.
  • For persona research to be truly successful, you need to plan the delivery phase just as carefully and thoroughly as the research phase.

The pre- and post-research phases of your project are critical. The research itself is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Below that is the other 2/3rds that people don’t always talk about. That’s the work that keeps the rest afloat.

Need help with your own persona research? Let’s talk.



Corbet Fawcett

User researcher. People leader. UX coach. Fascinated by people. []