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Moving beyond user Personas



While working in research, innovation, and product design, I've often found myself being asked to work with Personas. They are ubiquitous, regarded as a key tool for empathy and design. However, I believe it's time to take a closer look at them, to expand beyond them, to find new ways of representing and creating for our users. While I believe in the purpose behind Personas - to connect with people, build empathy, and design with purpose - I also think that they fail to represent the diversity of the people we serve, and often trap us into stereotypes and assumptions.

As human-centred creators, it is our responsibility to embrace the diversity of those we design for (and with), and to look beyond the frames that Personas give us.

What are Personas?

You might've heard about Personas before, a design artefact widely used to represent who the users of a product are. In its most famous version, a Persona will take the form of an actual person - it'll be given a name, an age, and a photo. It'll tell you their civil status, the number of children they have, their education. It will also tell you the things they like, or dislike, their beliefs, behaviours, and values.

Image (Image 1: Template example of Persona from “What are Personas” by Interaction Design Foundation)

Personas are the product of research (if they're not, they're sometimes called ‘proto-personas’) - which means that they are based on real insight of real people (real ‘personas’ you might even say). They are an output, a way of communicating a specific finding - who your users are. They are also an input, as they are used to create a representation of your users that guides your products decisions.

The problem with Personas

Whenever research goes through analysis, it is synthesised. Aggregated, collated, focused. It is an essential part of research and design, critical to sharing findings, and building sharp and compelling narratives. Researchers must find the essence of what participants said, and bring it to life in order to create empathy, and guide decision making.

Personas are an attempt at doing that - at distilling a wealth of knowledge into focused profiles of people. However, in an effort to create narrative, Personas end up becoming forced insights, fictional creations synthetically packaged. When creating Personas, we focus on those ‘most popular’ findings, and inevitably lose the ‘edges’. This means we lose the rich insight of those behaviours, attitudes, ideas that are not often voiced. It also means that, most often, we end up with Personas that are a product of hegemonic culture. What I’ve seen in Personas is that they end up a reductive representation of users, synthesised to a point where people who use them believe customers can only fit 1-3 types of people - and abandons completely the effort to embrace the complexity that people are.

[Personas] are inherently an amalgamation, an average of attributes that we imagine our average customer has. And there’s no such thing as the average customer (Margaret P. & Doug Kim from Microsoft Design)

Personas are usually talked about as an artefact of empathy. When you know that “Anna (35), mother of 2, who likes to shop at 10 am while their children are at school”, you’re meant to feel closer to her, and feel like you can represent who she is. She is a mother, so she must like so and so - you’ll often hear. Her children go to school, so her day is like this and that - you’ll find yourself saying. The reality is, we don’t know Anna at all, and all the things we say after that will be based on our own stereotypes - of what being a woman is like, of what being a mother is like, or what being 35 years old is like; and of oh so many other characteristics we’ve attributed to her. The truth is, Anna doesn’t really exist, but we treat her as if she did, and let our assumptions, stereotypes, and prejudices flood in, to fill the gaps of what we don’t know.

The core issue we have with it is that Personas, as static and unrealistic descriptions of non-existing individuals, easily become vectors for bias (Chiara Lino & Giulia Bazoli from Designit)

Personas fail to embrace the diversity of humans. Most Personas are by default white, abled-bodied, cis, heterosexual. This is as much a result of the synthesis exercise, and of our own biases and blindspots creeping into the artefacts we create, as it is a result of the lack of diversity we bring in our research. Here, we're looking to solve our synthesis work, but in order to really embrace diversity and create inclusive products, our work must go beyond this, and our research must step up to become truly inclusive.

Moving beyond Personas

We still need what Personas promised to give us - to help our teams connect with their users, to understand their needs, their problems, their pains, and to use this knowledge as a guiding light when creating solutions. We need compelling narratives that allow those who are listening to your stories to really understand who their users are, who they are building for, and to really connect with the people we serve. We need better tools, ones that don't distance us from the diversity of our users, and help us design for inclusion.

So, we need options. Your teams need options. And if not personas, then what? Nowadays, my preferred options are:

  • Archetypes: we focus on the main attribute of the group. They can be anything that you’ve found to be a useful way of describing the different groups; for example “newbie”, “expert”, or “lurker”, “influencer”. They are based on behaviours, beliefs, attitudes - and can include one or more attributes. However, they should be quite focused - they don’t include a lot of information, but highlight a critical attribute of the group.
  • User roles: focused on the role that a user plays in a system; for example “admin”, “customer service“. These tend to be more useful for internal / organisational projects, as opposed to user segmentation.
  • Customer profiles: based on ‘value proposition’ by strategyzer. The idea is to build customer profiles based on what your user is looking to accomplish, the difficulties in achieving it, and the benefits once achieved (the job-to-be-done, pains and gains). You create one for each of the different customer types.
  • Modes: they capture a ‘mode’ of being, a specific way that a person relates to your product or service. In this option, one person can take different modes at different points, as opposed to being a specific static archetype or role. For example, for a shopping experience, you could have a ‘window-shopping' mode, a ‘on the lookout for a gift’, or ‘buying for myself’ mode. These all have different behaviours and journeys, but they can all be just one person taking different of these modes on.
  • Mindsets: proposed by Lino and Mazoli in their 3-part blogpost “Mindset over Matter”, the idea of mindsets is to represent the attitudes and responses from a person to a given situation. They are similar to modes in that one person can shift mindset throughout time - but they are generally more stable than modes.

Image (Image 2: Example of Mindset from "Mindset over Matter" blog)

The goal is to conduct activities and create outputs that really serve you, and can guide you in building your product. Here are some general tips that might help you when choosing your way forwards:

  • Stay away from any demographics (all the names and pictures, the age, the civil status), and focus on the behaviours, beliefs, attitudes. Sometimes a specific demographic will be relevant (e.g. age when talking about a pension product), but most often than not, they are only used to provide a picture to a Persona, and divert you from the real and important information.
  • Stay focused on what is relevant. Look at the information that truly represents what you’ve found, as well as what is the information that will serve you in moving your product or service forwards.
  • Let go of those elements that have been fictionally created just for narrative sake. Narrative will come through in a different way. Without an Anna (remember? From the example above), but with other new ways of representing your users.
  • Let research drive you. Sometimes research will show a clear segmentation, which also feels important for your product and how you want to build things going forwards. Sometimes a better way of presenting findings will be through journeys, maps, mental models, jobs-to-be-done. There are many ways of representing findings and engaging stakeholders with your users, their lives, their struggles; and of making it clear how your product or service will help them in their journeys.

What to do next?

Create insight artefacts that serve you, that help your organisation move forwards and design with diversity in mind.

I truly believe that us humans are able to connect with people without fictional characters that reduce the richness that makes us human. I believe we are all able to embrace the complexity that lies in understanding the real diversity of the people we are creating for; and that in doing this we can create better products. Let’s make our research activities embrace the diversity, the richness, the complexity of us humans; and build products that are made for everyone.

Are you looking for a partner to help you create truly purposeful and inclusive products? We have experience building products with diversity at heart. Contact us here