Some have a dislike of personas, as they are too much of a cute fit, a caricature, nothing more than stereotypes of your user base. I agree with this in some respects, personas that are not grounded in qualitative, ethnographic research are misleading and potentially damaging to a project.
If the money is not available I would recommend concentrating on user stories, scenarios that a user may find themselves when using the website and interacting with your product. For example…
The user needs to place a bid in order to secure the product for later retrieval and be informed when they are successful
These short descriptions can be brilliant at giving clarity and focus to the vision of the project at the initial development stage. They can also provide a reference point for the team as the project gathers momentum. These stories define the way the user interacts with the site, their needs and wants. They are, in effect, the small elements of concept models, the questions that are placed on the branches that stem from the user.
User stories are very easy to do, write them on a post-it and very soon you will have a stack of user insights describing their interactions with your site.
However, a good persona is invaluable for the team as they provide a reference point that can be very easily envisaged, digested and acted upon. The persona is labour intensive and for them to feel real they need to be ethnographically based though intensive research. It takes a good deal of time but once created they form a great point of reference for the team.
The team should use them constantly and yet it is likely that they do not. A site may have been in development for a few weeks and that initial book of personas has now been pushed to the back of the designer’s desk between the iPod, the mug of coffee and the week’s timesheets. As they gather dust, the likelihood of the site speaking to the personas, and in turn the user, drifts further away.
User stories will help pull back the design team from making assumptive choices. Whilst the more thorough user experience and IA favourite of the persona can still co-exist quite happily. So if we combine the two, have an interactions checklist, a user story rundown, then perhaps the design and development team will relate more readily with these deliverables. Both have their own merits but by having the two together you have a holistic profile of your user group.
Both Steve Portigal and Peter Merholz’s sides of the persona argument have valid points. Of course personas can be bad, but a really good one is worth so much in terms of getting the product right. User stories are cheap and very effective. Having keyword research and web metrics will also give you a balanced view of exactly who the users are.
So what’s the verdict? Having them both would be best – if the budget is there. If not stick with user stories and a group of people who really know the product and the audience (preferably the customer) to get as much down on the bits of paper as possible. It will be better than a half-baked persona and that I am sure of.