1. Personas are a heavily culture-loaded technique and should be
treated as such;
2. With all their benefits in mind, personas may not work universally,
because in some cultures seemingly complex things may be preferred
over seemingly simple things;
3. All tools of our trade (especially those working with qualitative
information) have to be considered for their cultural applicability,
before being preached as universal.
I think it's a sure bet that personas are culturally loaded. But the fact
that designers in some cultures may be more receptive to them than designers
in other cultures is probably a separate issue from their effectiveness.
The more interesting question implicit in the cultural differences that you
point out is about end user preferences for complexity or simplicity. Most
of the discussion in the area of user experience design assumes that simple
user interfaces are more usable user interfaces. I guess it's possible that
cultures with a preference for information density might prefer more
feature-rich products and more complex interfaces--but would they actually
be able to use them?
I have observed a similar difference in preferences between different types
of users within the US. If you start studying what people like in a
homepage, then it becomes immediately obvious that some people prefer
homepages with lots of news and other information BECAUSE they have all the
news and information. Other people prefer really simple homepages with just
a few things on them. I think the distinction maps to the distinction
between people who are basically in a news(paper)/reading frame of reference
and people who are basically in an entertainment/TV frame of reference. The
news folks like to have a sense that they can see "everything" so that they
understand the news. The entertainment folks just say, give me something I
It seems to me that the people in each of these groups are reassured by the
LOOK of the type of page they prefer. But the people who prefer the simple
homepages are often more savvy with interfaces and have a little more
tolerance for squirrelly designs than the people who prefer the dense
homepages. In fact, what I have observed over and over again is that users
express preferences for how pages look entirely independently of whether
they could use them at all. (In one benchmarking study, one participant
after another gave an intranet a ranking of 6, 7, or 8 on a scale of 1 to
10, with 1 the worst and 10 the best--even though most of the participants
could complete no more than 3 out of 16 tasks. "You can't find anything,"
they said over and over again, "but there's a lot of stuff there.") I think
this creates a fascinating dilemma for information-rich products: how
combine information density with simplicity, such that users LIKE your
product and can figure out how to USE it.
Now it seems to me that if you are willing to embrace personas as a
designer, you can design simple or dense interfaces, depending on what the
personas call for, regardless of cultural differences. Either way, it is a
device to capture what you know about users in such a way as to focus your
design work. All the same, I could see that personas would be very difficult
if not impossible to socialize in some contexts.