PRODUCTHEAD: User personas or creepy caricatures?

PRODUCTHEAD: User personas or creepy caricatures?

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

talk show product manager


Avoid waste by by first researching “shallow” user personas then progressively elaborating as needed

Product managers can and should conduct user research when demand outstrips the researchers available

Connect user personas to people’s actual goals for more emotional impact

Good interviewers listen, not talk

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every PRODUCTHEAD edition is online for you to refer back to


One of the first articles I read on user personas was ‘Persona Non Grata’ by Steve Portigal (PDF). He told the story of discovering what can be charitably described as an effigy of a user on his desk, left there for him by a colleague. And understandably, it totally creeped him out.

Thankfully, that particular way of portraying users hasn’t caught on but, as Portigal goes on to argue, it represented the main problems he saw with user personas: distanced, over-generalised, dehumanising caricatures — and more often than not, based on outdated or non-existent user research.

User research is not something you do in a burst once every couple of years. The desire to keep learning about the people you’re serving should be part of the fabric of any organisation that serves people in some form. Static user personas make the mistake of assuming that the people using your products are similarly static.

User personas should be a shorthand for the accumulated research you’ve done to understand not just what your users do, but why they do it. They only work as a shorthand for the team if the team is already familiar with what you’ve learned and shared about your users. In other words, the whole team should be participating in user research on an ongoing basis.

So this week, I’ve pulled together some good content to help you make your user personas more representative of real people and less like creepy caricatures.

Speak to you soon,


what to think about this week

Progressively Elaborated Users

As agile methodologies developed and became mainstream, the tension between big upfront design and emergent design has been a source of many agree to disagree discussions.

I am not abandoning user-centered design principles by stating that there are times when you should not develop (full) personas. I’m contextualizing the value of personas relative to other sources of value in the product development process.

The right amount of detail at the right time


Great User Research For Non-Researchers

Researchers often have concerns about what will happen when “other people” go out and do work with users. But the demand for research far outweighs the supply of researchers, and everyone wins when more people are enabled to do research themselves.

Steve Portigal describes how to be more effective in the three main elements of user research: planning, conducting, and acting on research.

Democratising user research (video)


Product Management Coaching

Whether you’re new to product management or have been a product manager for years, a coaching session can help you to step up your career.

We’ve coached people wanting to get into product management, product people with nobody in their organisation to manage them, and experienced product managers preparing to apply for a promotion.

We can help you prepare for your product manager interview, including mock interviews.

A proportion of the fees from every coaching session is donated to charity. Just reply to this email if you’re interested in finding out more.

Let’s Abandon Customers and Users

Creating real-world value is a multi-step process involving many players. And it’s exhausting prefacing every conversation by (re)defining terms: “for this user story, the customer is the sys admin who configures our CAD software, not the architect sketching out buildings. See personas 4 and 7.”

Wasted energy. So let’s abandon the words ‘customer’ and ‘user’ entirely, and be more explicit about who/what we mean.

Connecting emotionally with our users … umm … people who use our products


Interviewing Humans

The goal of interviewing users is to learn about everything that might influence how the users might use what you’re creating. Good interviewing is a skill you develop with practice. The great myth is that you need to be a good talker. Conducting a good interview is actually about shutting up. This can be very hard, especially when you’re enthusiastic about the topic.

How to prepare and conduct an interview


recent posts

4 common user persona mistakes

User personas can be a valuable visual reminder for your teams about the people relying on your product. More often than not, user personas instead end up being just a laborious way to decorate the walls. Are you making these common mistakes?

Ditch the irrelevant backstory


How closely aligned should product organisations be with marketing and personas?

Here’s another question I was asked recently:

If you’re concerned about buyer needs and their objectives, how closely aligned do you suggest product organisations should be with marketing and with the persona development to ensure they are creating a solution that does meet those needs in the market?

User or buyer?


The product leader’s guide to interviewing

Because I tend to help organisations build up their product team from scratch, I’m often involved in the interviewing and hiring process, so I’d like to share with you my product leader’s guide to interviewing product managers.

Countering unconscious bias in recruiting


Mission to Mars

Imagine you’ve just been told that you’ll be a member of the team responsible for the first manned mission to Mars.

Now imagine someone asks you how much the mission’s going to cost. The whole thing. There and back. By close of business on Thursday.

Aaaaaarrrrrrgggh. It depends


upcoming talks and events

5th May 2021, 16:00 GMT


Online product management round table discussion (topic TBC)


can we help you?

Product People is a product management services company. We can help you through consultancy, training and coaching. Just contact us if you need our help!

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Helping people build better products, more successfully, since 2012.

PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from dashed hopes and broken dreams.

Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a freelance head of product, product management coach and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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