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My understanding of UX Personas is that they're descriptions of fictitious people designed to represent the common traits and attributes of a broader audience demographic.

If that's the case, in what way is an invented profile more relevant/helpful than picking an actual member of the group being represented?

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The answer is in the question.

You said: They're descriptions of fictitious people designed to represent the common traits and attributes of a broader audience demographic.

Traits and attributes. Plural. They are made up combinations of several traits and attributes. Most people might have one or two, maybe even none. You might well spend a while finding the perfect real person who could represent a persona that you might otherwise come up with. Besides you still have to come up with personas to get to this stage.

Then you'll find they don't know what you think they know - or they know too much.

Don't get me wrong - nothing wrong with real users, but no need to get obsessive about finding users that could be personas. Just get a selection of real users - you can learn a lot from most users - they don't have to be the dream team.

Hopefully, you'll find personas are available 24/7, don't eat, don't sleep, don't get bored and don't need paying.

Move onto testing with real people when you think you've got enough content to make the feedback useful, but design/test/iterate with a representative selection of personas in mind, not for Dave in accounts.

EDIT: Added the following as examples of personas where the real person is going to be very hard to find:

Depending on how big the project, how long it's lasting, how much stakeholders need to be persuaded etc etc, then you might want to create quite detailed personas:

In A Project Guide to UX Design by Ross Unger and Carolyn Chandler (website: http://projectuxd.com/) they give some examples of advanced personas. You can find these on the website ( http://projectuxd.com/?page_id=5 ) under Chapter 7.

You can also Look inside the book at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Project-Guide-Design-Experience-Designers/dp/0321607376 and then Search inside this book for Advanced Personas and going to the second result (using the tab at right of 'page')

Now these personas are intended to be detailed and for good reason. As a developer or designer you should get to know these people; to understand them; get their needs, desires, influences, goals, doubts, etc. The more detail, the more real they seem. They should live on your wall; in your head, affecting your design. You should feel empathy with them.

BUT - These are not real people - they represent a type of person in your target audience but they are totally fictitious, maybe made up from hundreds of collected details, all accumulated through researching your audience carefully. To research your audience on a broad scale and then pick a real person as your persona, is like arranging a whole bunch of focus groups and then listening only to the one person that shouted the loudest.

Where are you going to find a single person that encapsulates all the information from one of these advanced personas.

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@Roger Thank you for your thoughtful response. I'd already considered a couple points you'd made and would be interested if you could go into further detail: –  Samuel Hulick Jun 30 '11 at 22:40
    
@Roger whoops - I'm new at this. here are the questions: // If MOST of the constituency doesn't have MOST of these traits and attributes, how relevant are the qualities? If they DO have them, how hard would a sample person be to find? // Your response seems to indicate that you don't see the qualities as a composite of traits derived from getting to know actual users, but through a more academic & abstract approach first - is this correct? I've always thought the "field work" comes first. –  Samuel Hulick Jun 30 '11 at 22:48
    
What I'm saying above is that you don't need to find an individual person that represents a single persona. Of course, the persona is based on observations of real people - they combine qualities, but REPRESENTED as an individual person as well representING a type of user. But my point is in answer to your question that you do not need to find a single real person that REPRESENTS your persona - you won't find them because you've made them up essentially from lots of other people. It's like trying to find one real person who can take the place of a whole football team. –  Roger Attrill Jul 1 '11 at 6:04
    
There is also the question of how domain specific your product is. For example, I was once involved in a high value project where the userbase was going to be a tiny number of people in a very technical environment who were not going to be allowed near the equipment and associated hardware without lots of industry experience and background knowledge. Essentially every user was the same and there would only be one persona. But that's a special case... –  Roger Attrill Jul 1 '11 at 6:14
    
I like the person-vs-football-team analogy. However, could you link to an example of a persona that couldn't be found "in the wild"? Even if the persona's description was derived "from lots of other people" wouldn't they still be as idiosyncratic as any person drawn from a random sample of real constituents? –  Samuel Hulick Jul 3 '11 at 7:52
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Wikipedia has a pretty good section on the benefits of personas. Here, they summarize what Alan Cooper stated in The Inmates are Running the Asylum (1999):

  • Help team members share a specific, consistent understanding of various audience groups. Data about the groups can be put in a proper context and can be understood and remembered in coherent stories.
  • Proposed solutions can be guided by how well they meet the needs of individual user personas. Features can be prioritized based on how well they address the needs of one or more personas.
  • Provide a human "face" so as to focus empathy on the persons represented by the demographics.

In essence, I believe the benefit is that one consistent set of characteristics are communicated and agreed upon within the design / development team. Had it instead been real persons, you run the risk that "stakeholders may define the 'user' according to their convenience."

AFAIR, Alan Cooper and Robert Reimann treats the subject of personas extensively in About Face 2.0 (and 3.0 too, I assume).

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Yes, Chapter 5 of About Face 2.0 goes into Personas quite nicely, but they come from Coopers 1999 book: 'The inmates are running the asylum'. In his own words, they have gained great popularity but they have also been the subject of some misunderstandings. The chapter in About Face attempts to clarify and explain in more depth some of the concepts and the rationale behind personas. –  Roger Attrill Jun 30 '11 at 8:09
    
@Roger Attrill OK. I have the book on the shelf at home so I was not able to look it up now. Thanks for clarifying :) IMO About Face is worth a read whether you're researching personas or not. –  jensgram Jun 30 '11 at 8:20
    
I think the personas approach falls down rather when time starts being invested in who these fiction people 'are' - rather than what users of a site might want to do with a site. It's also weak where you've got a site where the audience for a site is 'everybody' - so any personas for the site will be a rather random choice of 'anybodies'. –  PhillipW Jun 30 '11 at 8:44
    
@PhillipW Actually, I tend to see it from the opposite side: A site for "everybody" can use specific (and different) personas to make sure that several (and possibly contradictory) interests are considered and taken into account. I agree with you that the main purpose is to clarify what a user (specific persona) might want to do with a site. I.e., it should be goal-oriented. –  jensgram Jun 30 '11 at 8:48
    
@jensgram I will need to check About Face 2.0 out - thank you. By "stakeholders", to whom were you referring? –  Samuel Hulick Jun 30 '11 at 23:07
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I prefer to go in the other direction personally. http://commadot.com/sticky-personas/

Your idea isnt awful tho. I often will mention actual customers when saying something like, "Do you really think [customer name] will want that feature?"

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For an entirely different take, return to one of the original sources of personas in user experience: the book by Alan Cooper, The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. In it, Cooper specifically talks about personas not necessarily being representative of common traits. He has some excellent wisdom both about designing for an 'individual' (persona) who is not the most common of users, and the best descriptions of the reasons for them not being 'real.' That section is only a few pages long, so is an easy and informative read. The whole book is worth the attention: a lot of gold there about every aspect of conception, design, and development.

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Sometimes personas need to be unflattering. You might found out about motivations for using a product that no single end user would admit to having. In the absence of honesty or openness from a user, the discovery could be made from anonymous feedback, or from a knowledgeable stakeholder's insight. Tying this uncomplimentary or sensitive information to a real person would be problematic, but a fictitious representative gives deniability to your interviewees while maintaining realism.

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