MSN is advertising how they created user personas to represent how people use their products like MSN Hotmail, IM, MSN Money, MSN Search and more.
(See MSN Personas)
The problem I have with how MSN is promoting this is that they're using user personas as a promotional tool based on marketing data compiled AFTER the launch of their products.
The real beauty of Cooper user personas, (the company that first introduced user personas) is they are research-based for the purpose of giving web designers and business stakeholders someone to design for.
A user persona can be based on marketing and Internet usage data and used to trace back and measure usability and tasks, for example, for an existing site. But, for this to work, the site or software application is already designed. Marketing and Sales are pulling folks in for focus group testing or web survey analysis is conducted.
MSN has offered several composite users to reflect usage and are then promoting this to the public as though their products were made just for them.
But chances are they weren't. (They have yet to design anything for people like my Dad, who can't stand Windows OS or anything Microsoft. Period.)
Cooper user personas are best created before any code is started or even before any storyboard development is done. They create several people, and write up a complete scenerio on who they are, their marital status, educational background, kids, employed or not, what type of employment, and even their mental and emotional state. They include what type of computers they use and where they use them.
How would a working mom with a half hour lunch break, on a budget, with kids to run to sports, dinner to make when she gets home and yoga class in the evening going to find and comparison shop for a new birthday present gadget for her computer geek husband who can't live without his cell phone and palm pilot? Whoever has designed their website and shopping cart FOR HER, and nailed it in search engines so she could find it, gets the sale. It's not whoever advertised the crap out of their product and paid a zillion bucks for branding and somehow this busy mom remembered to check their site to get what she wanted at the best possible price in the few minutes she had during lunch.
User personas are an excellent tool used during the build stage or in testing, like how I apply them to usability testing and task testing. I use "user characters" to illustrate to the client how understanding how a person uses their site goes a long way towards making it a successful online business. Team meetings between stakeholders, developers and designers can get into fantastic brain storming sessions with user personas in hand.
Any woman nursing her newborn and IM'ng at the same time will give user testing a run for their money. How many software developers are thinking of them?
This is why user personas are valuable.
(PS - Cooper folks insist it takes YEARS to learn how to develop proper user personas. Even applying some of their theory is enough to get web designers thinking about users, and that's a good thing!)