Personas are both good and not good.
A few reasons why they are not good - from personal experience:
- They represent research at a point in time and may become less valid as time goes by, and sadly there is often less drive to repeat the research or update the personas
- They become a proxy for 'this is our audience' - an absolute - whereas things are always more complicated than that. Things change.
- They can easily get forgotten - you have to work to make sure they stay alive and visible.
Note that the problems with personas are mostly time related. Personas age.
But there are reasons why they are good - again from personal experience:
- Whatever happens to personas, if a whole team (or to some extent, a whole company) is involved in the journey of creating the personas, then that experience in creating the personas is at least as important, if not more, than any 'artifact' at the end.
- Personas are (should be) the manifestation of solid research, and any solid research is good for providing evidence based decisions - provided the research was valid in the first place.
- Personas help remind us that we're building products for human beings. I've seen and overheard developers speak about personas as something that suddenly helps them understand that they are making products for people. I've had developers quoting personas back at me. This is priceless!
Are there better ways? Maybe, but more to the point there are definitely other ways. Personas are not the only tools. They should be used in conjunction with other research, other evidence, other sources, to keep us as data informed from as many different directions as possible. Personas are one tool among many.
As UX designers, it's our job to keep personas alive, and that process helps us as well as our colleagues. Critically, it's also our job to continually critique the tools that we use and re-evaluate their suitability for purpose. It's our job not to take things for granted. Personas fall into that area, and if they become less relevant, or misleading, or appear biased then either they need updating, to continue being useful - or indeed as I think you suggest, they should stop being used.
However - on balance, I believe that personas, and the journey of creating personas has enough significant value that even if after some period of time they are discarded (like any piece of new tech) they will have usefully served their purpose and provided value in that time.
In fact I suggest that personas are created with an expiry date, because it sure is tempting to let them live on, and on, and on. And the more time goes by the less valid they become.
This is a sad day for me. As I write this, I realize I have some much loved but aging personas in mind, that I think need to be laid to rest. They were useful.