Everything and the Kitchen Sink:

Book Review of The Persona Lifecycle

I’ve used personas for years (though some might regard my process as a slightly heretical perversion of the method). I always think about the big picture, and I was just thinking BIG about personas at work when The Persona Lifecycle landed on my desk.

I’d recently redone the standard review of persona articles on the web. I breezed back over the chapters in About Face 2.0 and Christina Wodtke’s Blueprints for the Web. A colleague even loaned me Steve Mulder’s new book, The User is Always Right, which I kind of thumbed through.

Given my review of what’s out there, The Persona Lifecycle is the most comprehensive book on personas I’ve come across. If you’re so inclined, it can taking you from novice to expert. The authors, Jonathan Pruit and Tamara Adlin, take advantage of extensive teaching experience and punctuate their discussion with lots of real-world examples, case studies, anecdotes, bright ideas and handy guidelines.

That being said, it’s not an easy read, and it’s not for everybody.

Persona school

Pruit and Adlin use the lifecycle as a metaphor to frame the different stages personas go through, from birth to retirement. To highlight their process, a fictional case study runs throughout the book tying everything together. Because design doesn’t happen in a vacuum, the authors talk about how to ease the adoption and communication of personas at different levels of your organization. In fact, the book covers the two most important facets of personas: making them and getting them used.

Overall, the book is very rigorous and thorough. Chapter one is the best overview and history of, introduction to, and case for personas I’ve ever seen; it should be required reading for everyone.

Though the writing aims at being straightforward, the authors tend towards the academic. That is, they use big words to make things clear. Pruit and Adlin developed the lifecycle as a way to teach personas, and at some point in chapter two, my hazy school days came flooding back to me: The Persona Lifecycle is a textbook.

Information overload

Todd Warfel was disappointed with the book. Todd’s a smart guy: passionate, extremely knowledgeable, creative and driven to perfect his UX game. Like a kid waiting for Christmas, he eagerly awaited for his copy to arrive. When someone like Warfel says they didn’t like the book, it should make you wonder.

In Warfel’s words, the authors included everything but the kitchen sink. Don Norman’s cover blurb hints in a similar fashion: “–it truly is for everyone: the practitioner, the researcher, and the teacher.” Warfel and Norman are right. The book has everything. It’s like reading an encyclopedia, and after a short while, the stories, guidelines and examples start to blur together.

Doesn’t work as a reference

I was torn between reading the book cover-to-cover and flipping to the sections where I needed some perspective for my current project.

As a flip-through reference, the PLC is hit and miss. There’s no comprehensive table of contents, and it’d be great if there was some sort of index for the numerous stories from the field. I’d like to reference a couple, but I can’t remember where I read them or who wrote them. Similarly, many of their useful broad guidelines are lost to time and the pages of the book, because I can’t find them on a second pass.

Creating personas

There are two ways of creating personas: a short way, and a long way. The book mentions the short way, but mostly, Pruit and Adlin focus on creating personas the long way with lots and lots of research and lots and lots of analysis.

They present all the steps so you have them in your toolbox, not so you’ll use all of them on every project. Still, I found myself breezing through or skipping over sections on topics I was already familiar with. Even though the authors may intend the book to present the entirety of the toolbox, they end up presenting the toolbox as a temple of rigor.

Using personas

There were a couple of sections I liked. In chapter two, they digress for a moment to look at how the persona lifecycle might fit in to your current design process, and in chapter three, “Family Planning (Planning a Persona Effort),” they spend a lot of time helping you position your persona effort for maximum acceptance throughout your company. I don’t agree with everything they recommend, but the perspective is interesting and educational.

“Birth and Maturation” (chapter five) focuses on communicating personas to the different levels of the organization and getting personas used. The fact that they even use a phrase like “communication strategy” when talking about deliverables wins them big points, but I found myself having to strip the good bits out of the background noise of the super-bureaucratic enterprise for which we’re apparently working.

Recommended, but with caveats

Despite all this bitching, I do recommend the book.

Some readers will appreciate how the authors painstakingly dissect and analyze every part of the persona process. If you’re one of those people–and you know who you are–you’ll love this book. It’s a bible, a handbook, an encyclopedia of wisdom about personas. And you like reading textbooks and encyclopedias.

If you’re a guru looking to become a “superhero,” reading The Performance Lifecycle, front-to-back is probably like adding two to three years solid experience under your belt. You’re guaranteed to level up. Maybe twice.

However, if you’re like me, a busy practitioner balancing the need to learn with the need for help with current projects, The Persona Lifecycle is less than useful. In the end, though the lifecycle is a great way to teach personas it may not be the best way to present them in book form. Had the authors written two books–one on creating personas and another on using personas–I think the added focus would have been fantastic.

If it sounds like just the book for you, buy “The Persona Life Cycle”:http://www.amazon.com/Persona-Lifecycle-Throughout-Interactive-Technologies/dp/0125662513/ref=sr_1_1/104-5610083-7341514?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178609076&sr=8-1/boxesandarrows-20 now.

*About the book*
“The Persona Lifecycle : Keeping People in Mind Throughout Product Design (Paperback)”:http://www.amazon.com/Persona-Lifecycle-Throughout-Interactive-Technologies/dp/0125662513/ref=sr_1_1/104-5610083-7341514?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178609076&sr=8-1/boxesandarrows-20
by John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin
Paperback, 744 pages
Publisher: Morgan Kaufmann (April 24, 2006)
ISBN: 0125662513

Posted in Book Reviews, Reviews | 3 Comments »

3 Comments

  • Todd Zaki Warfel

    May 9, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    Great review Austin. I think your assessment is pretty accurate. If someone is looking for an encyclopedia, it’s a pretty decent textbook. However, it’s not for the faint of heart,someone looking to brush up on personas, just sharpen their skills, or get a quick how to. This book takes a substantial investment to wade through. I appreciate it’s thoroughness, but really wish the writing style was something that doesn’t lose you in the process of reading it. Sadly, as you suggest, I was gravely disappointed in this book – I had such high hopes. There’s just too much in the book.

    As you’ve said, it’s not for all, but it can provide some value to those in our field.

  • David Larson

    May 11, 2007 at 3:52 pm

    Todd, I had snatched this book from the new book shelf at my corporate library – after three overdue notices, I decided I’d had enough and set the book down. The Eisenberg brothers (grokdotcom.com) introduced me to personas about three years ago – they have several good articles on their site.

    I’d like to see a book called “B2B Speed Dating: Practical Personna’s for the Marketing Challenged”.

  • Austin Govella

    May 17, 2007 at 4:26 am

    David,

    Have you checked out Mulder’s “The user is always right”?

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