37Signals Jumps the Shark

I used to like 37Signals and their blog, but recently it has turned into what they’ve often decried in the past: a PR soapbox. Half the posts it seems are about their own products, how great they are, how the 37Signals team uses their own products, how the products got designed, and how 37Signals is taking it to The Man. In fact, 14 of the last 23 posts to the SVN blog fall into this realm by my count. Certainly some of it is interesting behind-the-scenes and tips/tricks stuff, but the density of it gets wearing.

Some of the recent posts have been breezy treatments on complicated topics like “How has open-source helped or hindered?” (answer: it’s all good!) and “Can I build a product business if I’m just a designer?” (answer: here’s a few anecdotes from my personal experience that are unique and have nothing to do with you. You go girl!)

The post that got my ire up just now was one about personas. Essentially Jason says, “Personas are crap. Don’t bother with them. We don’t use them, neither should you. We design for ourselves and our needs, because lots of other people have our needs, and that’s how you should design too.”

Here’s how Jason starts the post:

We don’t use personas. We use ourselves. I believe personas lead to a false sense of understanding at the deepest, most critical levels.

Every product we build is a product we build for ourselves to solve our own problems. We recognize our problems aren’t unique. In fact, our problems are probably a lot like your problems. So we bundle up the solutions to our problems in the form of web-based software and offer them for sale.

Ah, if only life were that easy all the time. What if you have to design a dental chair, and you’ve never done dentistry? You could look at it from the standpoint of the patient, since you’ve been in that position, but you don’t really know what goes on in the mind of a dentist or the dental assistant, who are the two other users of the chair (and quite different in what they want and need from dental equipment, by the way).

Now I’m not the world’s biggest fan of personas, but this often comes down to execution rather than the tool itself. Personas are often done poorly or used in ways they shouldn’t be. They are not always the most effective means of conveying user needs and perceptions. But they have their place and if done well can be useful. And the basic goal of a persona is valuable: help the design team think about the various people they are designing for who are not like the designers themselves. They are less useful and defensible when made up entirely rather than synthesized out of in-person user research, and Jason seems to assume that all personas are made up.

Jason says:

We recognize not everyone shares our problems, our point of view, or our opinions, but that verdict’s the same if you use personas. Making decisions based on real opinions trumps making decisions based on imaginary opinions.

Exactly. Personas can (and should if possible) be based on real opinions too, they don’t have to be fabricated. With any type of deep qualitative user research, whether conducted on yourself or others, requires a level of abstraction and extrapolation in order to be effective (which is why qual and quant must be compelentary). Personas are no different, they just make the extrapolation more explicit.

The whole point of personas is to avoid the problem of designers (or engineers, or marketers, or whomever) thinking that their problems are the same as their customers’ problems, and that their customers think the way they do. This is a proven path to failure for many products. Blithely assuming that everyone else designs products for people like themselves, a la 37Signals or Jake Burton, smacks of arrogance and/or narrow-mindedness.