User Persona Non Grata

Is there any bigger waste of a financial marketer’s time and money than developing user personas? I mean, really, how much money is spent on research and analysis to come up with silly little descriptions like:

“Jenny is a busy young working mom who values convenience from her banking relationship.”

I’ve seen user personas from lots of financial institutions, and I’d be hard pressed to tell you how one financial institution’s personas differ from the others.

I’d also be hard pressed to find any difference in the websites of these organizations, and–even worse–how the redesign of any one of these bank’s websites reflected their persona development efforts.

I mentioned my perspective on this to a friend who said “yeah, but I use personas when I write, because it helps me think who will be reading this.” Good point. In fact, I do the same. But neither my buddy or I spent any money to come up with our personas. It took me maybe 30 minutes to think about my blog readers’ personas.

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I recently heard a CMO explain her firm’s user personas, and I asked her how the effort might be impacting product development and service design. “We’re not there yet,” was her reply. “Of course you’re not,” I thought, “because there is no plan to use the personas to drive product or process change.”

Sometimes I wonder if some bank CMOs realize that the rest of the executive team thinks a lot of marketing dollars are spent foolishly. This isn’t the “half of advertising dollars are wasted, I just don’t which half” adage. This is a “damn, every penny of marketing investment in that particular area is going down the drain” feeling.

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My take: If you really want user personas, steal another bank’s descriptions. You’re not going to come up with anything different or better. But if you’re determined to go thru the process from scratch, work with the management team to figure out how the personas are going to be used to drive product and process changes before you get started.

The question, of course, is: How do you do that?

I came across a blog post that I thought would help answer this question. The blogger wrote:

“I’ve never been completely convinced that personas are a valuable design tool. I’m realizing now that it’s not the personas I have a problem with. It’s the manner in which they’re introduced to an organization. How do we take these documents to the next level so that they becoming meaningful, usable, and multilayered?”

But, alas, the post didn’t answer the question.

The Nielsen Norman Group is one of the leaders in the field of user experience design. They wrote:

“When based on user research, personas support user-centered design throughout a project’s lifecycle by making characteristics of key user segments more salient.”

I dare you to say that at an executive team meeting at your bank or credit union (for the record, “salient” is never a good word to use in a business discussion).

Nielsen Norman Group claims that there are benefits to user personas that extend beyond the initial design phase, specifically, using personas for:

“…segmenting analytics data to evaluate the behaviors and use of real users.”

Okay, but that would require associating real users with the defined personas. What data elements do you think you have about your site’s users that would enable you to make this association?

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Then there’s this article promising to tell us the 31 business building benefits of Buyer Personas. Highly alliterative, but mostly useless. It’s simply a list of 31 business benefits that could come from blowing your nose. No proof given that developing personas delivers the promised benefits. My favorite line in this article was:

“In my experience, 3 to 4 Buyer Personas usually account for 90%+ of a company’s sales.”

This guy has clearly never worked for a bank or credit union. Two buyer personas account for 99%+ of your sales:

  1. Losers who chose you because your branches are closest to their homes.
  2. Poor deluded souls who chose you because they thought your customer service was better than other banks and credit unions.

(Oops! Damn! I didn’t mean to give away the definitions of the only two user personas your financial institution needs.)

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Bottom line: I realize that there are benefits to using user personas to help make design decisions and tradeoffs. But, please don’t deceive yourself into thinking that there is some grander, longer-lasting benefit to this effort. Unless, of course, you successfully transition those personas into your organization’s overall customer segmentation efforts, and product design efforts (if you engage in anything that could be considered “product design”).

[Note: If you disagree with me — and I’m sure many of you do — leave a comment and tell me where I’m going wrong. Please don’t contact the publishers of this site telling them how they have to publish your rebuttal to this article. Thank you.]

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