The PhD candidate in social anthropology wakes up in a cold sweat after a nightmare of existential proportions. Like one of those dreams where you take the Grade 12 math exam in the nude after not attending a single class the whole year, she has typed up hundreds of pages of data, findings, conclusions and insights from 2 years of fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands only to realize that her detailed analysis of marriage rites, lineages recounted by informants and corresponding kinship charts have been replaced by..

“Remy is our Gardening Tastemaker. An early adopter of new yam farming techniques, he has a collection of shiny spades and hoes that make him the envy of his neighbours and a detailed attention to soil acidity that makes him a leader in the local horticultural scene. A family man with three boys who would rather play Wii than cultivate yams, Remy worries that an introduction of potatoes from eastern Canada will dramatically impact the local environment, economy and culture.” Remy the Trobriand Persona

Of course, it’s just a dream. No anthropologist, however young and green, would dare to substitute the rich detailed lives of field subjects for such a condensed amalgamation of those subjects’ experiences and expressions. That is, unless she found herself in that other betwixt-and-between realm of Best Practices. But is the Persona still considered a Best Practice?

Observing from the sidelines and eavesdropping on agency talk about encouraging clients to enrich their Customer Experience, it looks like the Persona is in the middle of an identity crisis. Sure, big-money research still has it in its tool kit; a recent phone call I took with a major U.S. software/tech firm looking to understand music consumers and their downloading practices revealed that its years are, in part, being plotted with help from a number of Personas. But others consider the Persona a case of Insight Lite, user changelings like Soccer Mom and Early Adopter stunt-doubling for fleshier consumer presences.

One recent indication of this comes in the form of “Persona Non Grata,” a white paper that’s been authored by Steve Portigal and circulated among commercial design and research geeks. The founder of Portigal Consulting (www.portigal.com), a boutique agency ‘that helps companies discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers’, he writes that “personas are misused to maintain a ‘safe’ distance from the people we design for, manifesting contempt over understanding and creating the façade of user-centerdness while merely reinforcing who we want to be designing for and selling to.” Add that to a ‘sanitized form of reality’, ‘smug customer-centricity’ and his equal distaste for market segmentation, and Steve seems to have fired a shot across the bough of this Best Practice.

So, is it a fair shot? Is the Persona going the anthropological way of structuralism, functionalism, structural-functionalism and all those theories and practices no longer considered Best? If so, anybody interested in paying soccer moms to hang around the UX and IA people while they work out the kinks?