Beware the Cut ‘n’ Paste Persona

This Person Does Not Exist is a website that generates human faces with a machine learning algorithm. It takes real portraits and recombines them into fake human faces. We recently scrolled past a LinkedIn post stating that this website could be useful “if you are developing a persona and looking for a photo.” 

We agree: the computer-generated faces could be a great match for personas—but not for the reason you might think. Ironically, the website highlights the core issue of this very common design method: the person(a) does not exist. Like the pictures, personas are artificially made. Information is taken out of natural context and recombined into an isolated snapshot that’s detached from reality. 

But strangely enough, designers use personas to inspire their design for the real world. 

Personas: A step back

Most designers have created, used, or come across personas at least once in their career. In their article “Personas – A Simple Introduction,” the Interaction Design Foundation defines personas as “fictional characters, which you create based upon your research in order to represent the different user types that might use your service, product, site, or brand.” In their most complete expression, personas typically consist of a name, profile picture, quotes, demographics, goals, needs, behavior in relation to a certain service/product, emotions, and motivations (for example, see Creative Companion’s Persona Core Poster). The purpose of personas, as stated by design agency Designit, is “to make the research relatable, [and] easy to communicate, digest, reference, and apply to product and service development.”

The decontextualization of personas

Personas are popular because they make “dry” research data more relatable, more human. However, this method constrains the researcher’s data analysis in such a way that the investigated users are removed from their unique contexts. As a result, personas don’t portray key factors that make you understand their decision-making process or allow you to relate to users’ thoughts and behavior; they lack stories. You understand what the persona did, but you don’t have the background to understand why. You end up with representations of users that are actually less human.

This “decontextualization” we see in personas happens in four ways, which we’ll explain below. 

Personas assume people are static