The Persona is Past Its Prime: Meet the Mental Model

Lorraine Chisholm Lorraine Chisholm

Here at Work at Play, the single greatest impact we’ve made to up the quality of our product design and development has been replacing personas with mental models. For us, the mental model is the undisputed champion. No other tool has come close to replicating the dramatic increase in quality we saw after adopting the mental model. We are leaving the persona behind. You should too, and here’s why...

User experience design has come a long way since the 90’s. When personas were introduced to the world in 1998 via Alan Cooper’s groundbreaking book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, UX was still in its infancy. Cooper popularized the bold concept of “thinking like a user” and the persona quickly became all the rage. The success of the persona did a lot of good. It broke down barriers for user experience design by helping designers step outside of their own needs and biases, and focus instead on the user. Personas changed our goals: at a time when no one considered users, personas put them first.

But a lot has changed since 1998...

Personas Rely On Fiction

Since the advent of the persona, user experience design has seen a great deal of advancement. For one thing, we realize we should be out talking to real users to understand their actual behaviours and goals instead of relying on imagined concepts. One big reason to be wary of personas is the proliferation of faux personas. It’s simple really: if you don’t do solid research, there’s nothing to back up your claims. Yet research dollars are often wasted on crafting works of fiction. Well-meaning people spend time imagining a character to fit their persona. Who is this user? What’s their background? What do they care about? These are all valid questions, but the closer we get to a neat, polished stereotype, the further we get from from the value of concrete research.

If I’m asking a client to fund a piece of research, I want to be able to give back something that’s actionable, robust, and detailed. I want something that’s going to give them more bang for their buck—something that’s going to have longevity.

Personas present us with a character, but negate the plot. The persona limits its character to one setting, which means that while the user is likely to behave differently in unique settings, personas don’t reveal those scenarios to us. These are the kind of blind spots that conceal a user’s nuanced needs and behaviours.

Avoid Decisions Based On False Assumptions

Personas can also lead to a lot of false assumptions. It’s not enough to have a persona: you still have to interpret the character and background of that imagined person, and determine how it will influence your design decisions. Usually the persona is given a name and a stock photo is slapped on—but there’s still a huge gap between your interpretation of what this made-up composite character would do, and what actual, real users would do.

Even for well-researched personas, often that persona will be done by one person on the team, then passed off to another. It’s kind of like telephone: you start off with a lot of nuanced information, and then that information gets to be less nuanced and less detailed the more it’s passed along. You lose the substance of the original research, and unfortunately, you may find your user personas turning into 2-dimensional stereotypes.

Seeking Real Value

It’s time to ask: what is the value of personas? What can you do with a persona? Just having an image with some kind of detail and characteristics and story around your user is not enough for a contemporary user experience designer to go on.

We need much more nuanced information than:

This is Anita. She has 2 kids, and a dog. She works full-time, and also maintains her home. This is why she’s always in a hurry when she comes to use her phone or laptop.

This information is not helpful to me. I don’t care if she has a dog, or if she’s rushed when she’s picking up her phone. I need something more tangible when I’m designing. I want something that has a lot more meaning and detail—something I can act on without interpretation.

Mental models show you the expanse of the journey, they help you parse why your users do what they do, and they help you generate real, actionable solutions.

Meet the Mental Model

Personas may have been a great tool back in the day, but after 15 years of progress, user experience design has much better solutions. To me, a persona is just a starting point for imagining your user. It doesn’t tell me where the gaps are, or what problems to solve. The mental model does. Mental models show you the expanse of the journey, they help you parse why your users do what they do, and they help you generate real, actionable solutions.

The great thing about mental models is that they don’t dictate one solution. Instead they help you identify multiple solutions that you can then match up with your user’s potential problems, barriers or needs. Mental models raise new insight, so you can solve hidden problems.

Mental models give you a nuanced mental landscape of your customer for you to address and explore. You can single out a need, then identify three potential approaches to it. And unlike personas, you’re starting from a place of certainty: you are creating a solution because it’s something you know your customer needs.

Audience Mental Model developed at Work at Play

Audience Mental Model developed at Work at Play

Mental Models = More Bang For Your Buck

The way I see it, if you’re going to invest in the real research required for personas, why settle for guesswork? For my dollar, if I’m asking a client to fund a piece of research, I want to be able to give back something that’s actionable, robust, and detailed. I want something that’s going to give them more bang for their buck—something that’s going to have longevity.

With mental models, you can validate your qualitative findings through quantitative research. Your research has legs: you can do more with it. It’s also iterative, which means you can build on your initial research, and extend it into new territory.

In Conclusion

There is some value in personas. When you have a very diverse team or stakeholders who don’t understand your users, personas can act as a vehicle to try and envision those users, and get everyone on the same page. But you still need to interpret that user, so the danger is that everyone will bring their own experiences into the mix and project that onto the persona.

Instead of taking your research and boiling it down to an archetype (or in some cases a stereotype), then trying to interpret and expand that data, mental models provide you with research that illuminates actual behaviours. By focusing on underlying behaviours, mental models help you understand your user in numerous situations.

Previous article: How To Create an Audience Mental Model.

Cross posted to Medium.