Can you do research and ideation without personas? Of course you can and in some research scenarios the personas just make more confusion than good, but generally, a serious research project needs the personas to pass to the design team a better understanding of the user base
Personas are the members of the researcher’s gang. The many, the better, because a lone-wolf researcher can do so much before reaching the point of critical exhaustion.
Usability Research and the Personas in it have a single mission: to bring change for the better and to consolidate and spread the user base. So, researching the current users alone is not enough to fulfill the research mission. Is better to approach the use of Personas as a research tool in an unorthodox way.
Best methodology is to use 4 main groups of Personas, with at least 3 characters each, but in most cases, the groups should be subdivided according to similarities and diversity. Consider it to be important for the usability map, to have in it every possible user type.
1 – Moderate Users. Fanatics.
This group can be divided into two sub-groups: Willing and Forced. The willing users are those who really like to use the application, and the Forced are those who are obligated to use it by circumstance. These are users with well-consolidated muscle memory and usability fluency. So, because of this, they are not a good testing ground for redesign and information architecture problems. They have already got used to the application and its flaws. They will resist to the changes, and they are the ones commenting: “For an older version”. That said, they are really needed for the redesign process, as an anchor that will make sure that the designers will not move to far from the actual structure of the application, thus ensuring the continuity of tradition.
2 – Light Users. The Pragmatists.
These are the testing ground. They will accept really fast a good design decision and will help a lot with the project moving forward. This is the group that can transition to Moderate if the redesign is done well and attention is given to the features they see as important.
3 – Interested Not-Users. The prospects.
These are the most important personas. You may think differently but this is group is what is getting you paid. Every redesign is made with the hope that this group will be attracted enough to become users. Study this group well through the competition and any possible way you can. Their demography will give the design team a true map to follow.
4 – Not-Interested Not-Users. The indifferent.
These are the ones that hate your application. They have never used it and if you don’t do your job well, never will. Research this group well, because they are the best testing barometer for the redesign. If you can hook some of them you are on the right track.
Make your Personas real but not too real. Keep a distance from them and don’t get stuck on the writers trap of loving your creation, it will pass your character preferences to the design team, which is a big NO-NO.
As for the format of the personas’ design, sorry to say, but the helping applications will just constrict your research, by forcing you to enter parameters that do not really mirror the reality. Pen and paper in best for this task.