As the use of personas has become a de facto standard in the web development process, there appears to be a missed opportunity with interactive web design. The application of user personas, or behavioral archetypes, in the design process offers many benefits, and can help guide decisions on a project. It also holds stakeholders accountable to maintaining user-centered design. Unfortunately the gross application of personas does not leverage as one of the greatest assets of interactive design. And maybe it should.
The need really stems from the fact that personas have a multiple personality disorder. The two obvious examples apply to Amazon and Netflix. A persona for either of these brands takes on multiple personalities, some of which are never accounted for. For instance, when I rent the movie Iron Man on Netflix, I am fulfilling my archetypical behavior. But when I use the same account to rent the movie Dora the Explorer for my niece, my persona just falls apart. On Amazon I may make a purchase decision as a husband, brother, father, or as a business person. These multiple personalities are often not accounted for in the user experience planning phase, and what you are left with is a mess of recommendations and misunderstanding from the service provider's perspective.
A similar concept also applies to social networks. Senior user-experience researcher at Google, Paul Adams, recently gave a presentation called 'The Real Life Social Network', where he demonstrates how the current paradigm of social networking fails to truly understand user relationships by pooling all of your relationships into one mass. Clearly the complexities of human relationships extend much further than those considered during a user experience exercise, and the tools we are given in the interactive world are merely a gross over simplification of a user.
The application of user personas in design suffers from the same unintended consequence. In the online space the terms of 'friend' and 'recommendation' have become meaningless. If these online interactions were turned into real world experiences, we would suffer from moving from one socially awkward situation to another. There are ominous terms like the 'Semantic Web' which hope to help alleviate these socially awkward situations, but still remain a light at the end of the tunnel.
The opportunity we have yet to explore in the interactive space is how to appropriately qualify our customers each time they visit our website. Great interactive experiences avoid creating socially awkward situations for the user by understanding the context of a use case first. Before you give personas carte blanche in developing your next interactive design project, be sure that you are truly taking care of your users, and their multiple personalities.