Are Your Personas Outdated? Know When It’s Right To Revise

by Kim Flaherty on February 14, 2016

Summary: Up-to-date personas result in a better UX design process. Data from 156 companies provide a baseline to understand how often to revise personas. Knowing when and how frequently to make updates will help you craft personas that are both accurate and effective.


In UX design, a persona stands for a group of users with similar behavioral patterns, goals, motivations, and expectations; personas keep product-design decisions focused on user needs. They are snapshots in time of your users. As industries and business goals evolve or new technologies emerge, users change, too, and personas risk becoming obsolete if they no longer reflect your current users’ behaviors, needs, or goals. Eventually, the personas may need to be updated to reflect the new reality and make the designers serve the actual (new) user needs.

Is It Time to Update Your Personas?

Don’t revise personas just for the sake of it — focus on identifying the need to do so, and react accordingly. Start with asking the right questions and proactively investigate whether your personas are outdated. Look for two types of changes that can signal a transformation of your user base:

  1. Changes in your business and technology
  2. Changes in user demographics and interaction patterns

1. Business and Technology Changes

Assess whether your products or your competitors’ products have significantly evolved. If that is the case, it’s likely that users’ goals and tasks have also changed and that your personas need an update.

  • Has the business changed? What was the state of your business when the personas were created or last updated?  If your business offerings and objectives have remained fairly steady since then, it’s less likely that your personas are out of date.  On the other hand, if your business has pivoted or evolved significantly, your customer base has likely evolved as well. Evaluate the accuracy of your personas and update them to reflect your current users and your current products.
  • Has the competitive landscape changed? It may be that your competitors’ offerings have changed since your personas were created. Competition has an impact on your customers’ expectations for your product. If competitors’ offerings have changed significantly, these changes can shape the needs and behaviors of your users. Take that as a cue to gauge whether your personas are still accurate reflections of your customers.

2. Changes in User Base

Large or obvious changes in your business or customers make it clear that it’s time to revisit your personas. Sometimes, however, the changes may be subtle or may accrue gradually over long periods of time. In these situations, it’s less apparent whether your personas have become outdated.

To figure out whether your users have changed, look at broad demographics of your users and at fine-grain user data collected through analytics, usability testing, or support calls.

  • Demographic data. Has the composition of your customer base changed? The makeup of your user base as a whole may have changed, sometimes for reasons completely unrelated to your business. You may have acquired new customer segments that you didn’t have before, or customer segments you had in the past may have disappeared over time. For example, the healthcare reform brought an entirely different type of customer into the health-insurance marketplace. Many of these new users had different needs, goals, and behaviors than the insurance customers before the reform. Similarly, in the past 10 years, the makeup of the student body at many universities has changed to include students who attend classes online only. These students’ goals and needs are different than those of regular students. Keep an eye on the changing composition of your customer base over time. Your personas may need to be updated to reflect the dynamics of your users.
  • Analytics. Segment your analytics data by your personas. Capture persona-specific metrics and analyze how each customer segment uses your website. If the behaviors of any one segment differs from your expectations for how the corresponding persona would behave, your persona may need an update. If a large amount of your website traffic is not easily captured by your persona-specific analytics, you may need to investigate whether another persona should be created.
  • User-testing data. Recruit users who closely reflect the defining attributes of your persona segments and watch them as they perform activities on your site in a usability study. Figure out if the participants’ behaviors, expectations, and needs match those expected from your existing persona description.
  • Support-center data. Routinely meet with support staff to maintain an understanding of what types of support calls they receive most often. Have there been any changes in the calls they receive? Support calls can be used not only for updating the product to address common issues, but also for monitoring changes in customers’ needs by tracking new questions, complaints, or points of confusion.

If you do identify a mismatch between actual customer behavior and your personas, explore further. Do additional research to better understand the conflict. It’s possible that this mismatch is caused by a design problem and the product simply needs to be fine-tuned. However, this mismatch could also be an indication that your personas no longer accurately reflect your customers’ needs, and they need to be revised.

How Frequently Should Personas Be Updated?

There is no defined schedule stating when and how often personas should be updated. The appropriate timing depends on many factors, including the variability of your business and user base or the nature of the projects and products supported by the personas.

To understand how often organizations update personas, we surveyed 156 user-experience professionals. Nearly half of respondents (46%) update personas every 1–4 years. The other responses were split fairly evenly: 28% of respondents update personas quarterly or more frequently, and the remaining 26% make revisions after 5 years or not at all. These data tells us how often revisions occurred, but not the extent of those revisions. Presumably, those teams reporting quarterly or more frequent revisions make small tweaks to personas rather than entire overhauls.

persona-revision-frequency
Most teams update personas every 1–4 years.

Our survey respondents also rated how successful the personas were in creating a better user experience in the final product on a 1–7 scale (1= lowest; 7=highest). Teams who did not revise their personas for 5 years were less satisfied with their personas’ impact than the other groups.

The average personas’ impact rating was 5.5 for the group with the most frequent updates (quarterly or more often), 4.5 for the group who updated their personas every 1–4 years, and 3.9 for the group who updated their personas least frequently (every 5 years or not at all). The differences between the very frequent group and the other groups were statistically significant, but the difference between the frequent (every 1–4 years) and rare groups (5+ years) was not.

Average-Persona-Impact-Rating
Average personas’ impact rating segmented by revision frequency. The bars represent 95% confidence intervals.
histogram-persona-impact-rating
Histogram of personas’ impact rating segmented by revision frequency

Adopting a quarterly revision schedule paid off for many projects.These trends suggest that teams who keep their personas up-to-date perceive their projects as more successful in improving the user experience of their final products than teams who fail to keep persona data updated. The effort of updating personas itself indicates that the team values personas enough. Those teams that let personas sit untouched for 5 years likely did not put personas to good use.

However, if you revise personas several times a year, consider the impact of these frequent changes on your team: are team members able to keep up with the changes or do they feel overwhelmed and confused? Any change should be communicated effectively. Explain briefly what changed and why. Make sure that all team members using the personas know about changes and get rid of any old copies of personas.

If you have not updated your personas in 5 or more years, chances are they are performing for your products about as well as a dull butter knife cutting steak. It’s time to take a good hard look at the validity of your existing personas and determine whether it’s time to sharpen the tool.

Conclusion

Monitor shifts in your users’ behaviors and needs and reevaluate your existing personas periodically to determine whether they still reflect your user base. Depending on the frequency and degree of the changes needed, you may have to tweak your existing personas with minor updates, refresh them with large changes, or retire them altogether and create new personas that better reflect your current business and customers.

Learn More

We discuss how to effectively update personas in our full-day course Personas: Turn User Data into User-Centered Design


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