Today, the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) revealed personas they developed “as a tool that will help LITA create and refine tangible benefits and actionable strategies that directly address those interests, needs, and expectations.” Amanda (!) was part of the task force, and a couple of weeks ago she published a short episode about the LITA Persona Task Force on our podcast Metric.

Listen: LITA Persona Task Force (7:48)

So, the clickbait just sort of came over me and I don’t mean this title to sound so dire. However, it’s more true than my alternative: “How should LITA use their personas to succeed?” It’s the difference between being in the position to get the most out of a situation, or allocating time and effort just to make sure it doesn’t fall flat. The shot’s fired, and — or so I think — LITA is slow out of the gate.

There’s nothing wrong with their personas – but personas are the wrong tool for the job.

What does LITA want?

These personas were developed as a tool that will help LITA create and refine tangible benefits and actionable strategies that directly address those interests, needs, and expectations. … In February 2017, the LITA Board asked LITA committees and interest groups to select and rank three LITA member personas that are most relevant to them and to submit a concrete action suggestion(s), which each committee or interest group would like to pursue. This will allow the LITA Board to collect a good number of concrete use case scenarios for these personas and review those use cases in relation to the LITA 2016-2018 strategic plan. The LITA Board plans to select, prioritize, and implement high-impact use cases through committees and interest groups and continue to rely on the LITA personas in order to improve the overall LITA experience for its members.

In my words, LITA developed these personas to identify needs and unmet expectations that revealed opportunities to improve the user experience.

That metric — the value of the user experience (good, bad) — is the cumulative quality of colors in a kaleidoscope, wherein capturing that value is the real trick. Certain facets are easier to measure than others, but the signal to noise ratio of what makes an experience ultimately positive isn’t lacking in the noise. Improving the user experience is good for business, which is what I assume LITA wants. They have numbers they care about: churn, new members, higher engagement. User experience design is already a lot of noise — and that’s fine, that’s what makes it an art — but the strategy needed to have tangible impact on success metrics needs to be mostly signal.

Personas are noise, mostly

There’s a fundamental problem with personas: they are made up and not real. This means they are full of errors and prejudice. Using personas will distract and lead your team to make wrong decisions. … The problem with personas is that they encourage people to take that data, fill in the holes and even embellish them with made up data. In the context of signal-noise and data analysis, building personas would be adding noise to your data. This is one of the worst things to do, especially when scrubbing your data is the most important step and is about 80% of the process.

Another problem with making things up (building personas) is that they are prone to prejudices. When someone is creating a persona and feel it has holes, they will fill it their own prejudges, stereotypes and personal experience. Anyone who has run an A/B test and been surprised by the results will understand how wrong intuition can be.

Last, it’s hard to create this persona without an overcast of confirmation bias. You’re making this person up, asking this person your questions and then you answer these questions. It’s been pointed out before that is a lot of ‘you’ in there and not a real customer. Alan Klement

Personas are best as a demographic snapshot you use for marketing. They help folks craft stories that connect with real people, these inform art, help crystallize inward and outward brand perception, and advertise. As user-centric tools that inform product and service decisions, they align more accurately with the biases of the stakeholders – meaning, they aren’t.

The User Story

A persona is summed-up with a phrase called the user story. We use these in journey mapping. It goes: “as a [type of user], I want [some action], so that [outcome].” I am going to quote more Klement because, well, he just said it best (different article though!):

… there’s no room to ask ‘why’ — you’re essentially locked into a particular sequence with no context. … A table of user stories.

In the above chart, when someone reads moderator or estimator is that really adding anything? If anything it’s adding ambiguity to the flow. You and I are going to attach our own interpretation of what a moderator is or why they are in these particular contexts. Here, try this. Chop off the whole As a / an segment and see if you’re really losing anything. Compare these two: As a moderator I want to create a new game by entering a name and an optional description VS. I want to create a new game by entering a name and an optional description. Did the sky fall?

The Job Story

The job story is about causality. It reads: “when I [situation], I want to [motivation], so I can [expected outcome].” The user story encapsulates the persona; thus the job story encapsulates the job to be done.

The ethic of jobs-to-be-done — an approach optimized for identifying opportunities to improve a service — is that people choose a service because of the task it completes – or the job to be done. These jobs can be emotional, social, or functional, tangible or intangible, but the point is that the opportunity is in fulfilling the tasknot in being appealing to the persona.

It is the job that brings these personas to the service, the need is the connective tissue. “Director of Library Services, Jennifer Torre,” and “IT and Emerging Technologies Librarian, Amy Chuck” aren’t members of LITA because of what they do. I am an a web services librarian, I’m not a member. What unites them and differentiates me is that LITA solves a job they need done – one that I don’t.

There would not be much use for LITA to make a non-member persona of Michael Schofield, although I fit the bill. I am not particularly private so there is plenty of data. Rather, what my persona lacks is insight as to why I am not a member.

Rather, if they discovered the jobs I needed done, each job would be a bullet-point that identifies an opportunity to inspire me to join. Some of these opportunities would be out of scope, others might require too much time or investment, but there would be a few there that are actionable.

The more members and non-members they interview, the more jobs there are to be done. There will be a lot of consensus. There will be jobs LITA are approaching all the wrong way. There will be jobs they don’t even know about.

What jobs to LITA personas need done?

Each persona they crafted is enriched with motivations and frustrations and desires. These are the only actionable items. Here they are, tallied:

Motivation Neutral or positive mentions Negative mentions
I want to learn practical technologies and skills 4 2
I want [affordable] professional development 4 4
I want to stay up to date on conferences, events, etc. 3 1
5 I want [to support, to see more, to inspire] #libtech advocacy 5 0
I want to improve my network 2 0
I want to stay or become more active in LITA 3 3

I wasn’t particularly thorough, but I am mostly trying to make a point rather than provide sound numbers. The idea is that I tried to boil down statements associated with these personas into more-or-less like categories. Categories with a higher neutral or positive mentions and low negative mentions probably aren’t huge problem areas; those with high negative mentions and high neutral or positive mentions are areas of discord; and — if there were any — low neutral or positive mentions and high negative mentions are good opportunities.

These have little to do with their persona. It doesn’t matter what job they have, their gender, interests, activities. The motivation transcends persona.

LITA Personas will have minimal impact unless the focus is on the job

My point is that I believe their use of personas won’t inspire enough actionable insight to help LITA improve that user experience. What they have is just too vague, and that ambiguity is embellished with made-up personalities.

What should LITA do, then?

However, these personas have enough detail that LITA could probably suss out a few job stories. Mostly, they are missing the situation, but the motivation and desired outcome could be enough to identify the low hanging fruit.

Rather than ask committees and interest groups to cherry-pick from the personas, they should have them — regardless of the persona — try to identify complete job stories. There appears to be enough overlap with the personas that it’s likely these group members have similar jobs to be done, which invites the opportunity to interview one another.

For the record, I am referring specifically to the jobs-to-be-done interview. There’s a lot to read-up on, but basically the goal of this interview is to uncover the “first thought” that ultimately leads to registering for membership. In the process of discovering that first thought, the interviewer will uncover situations and motivations and desired outcomes that lead to actionable job stories.

Then, rather than upvoting personas to the LITA Board, they forward job stories.

Instead of picking and choosing favorite personas, job stories will likely overlap, giving clear indication about LITA’s next step.


Michael Schofield is a service and user-experience designer specializing in libraries and the higher-ed web. He is a co-founding partner of the Library User Experience Co., a developer at Springshare, librarian, and part of the leadership team for the Practical Service Design community.