Like many others, I returned to the office recently after having been away since March 2020. There are many new signs and reminders posted all around the office, but one of the few things from before times are the framed personas hanging in several places around the floor where I’m located.
I remember when these were premiered at a departmental meeting. There was great fanfare. People from the department were chosen to play the personas…they actually stood up and introduced themselves and talked all about their lives (I should note here that this is the literal meaning of the word “persona” — an actor playing a character). We were informed about the importance of thinking of each of these ‘people’ as we work on all the different things we do throughout our days, and making sure that we keep their needs in mind. We’re confronted with their smiling faces as we move throughout the hallways, we are encouraged to pause and read about their “lives” and what is important to them.
As much as I can see the value in using personas to help drive design thinking, user experience, marketing, I just can’t shake the feeling that they can be extremely problematic.
I struggle with the concept of boiling down our customers to one single representation. While it is absolutely necessary to think about an individual human being interacting with your product/service, and how the design of that thing fits in with that person’s daily life, I can’t help but feel that there is danger in this process.
The concept of using a fictional character to help understand a user’s needs is not new. Software designer and programmer Alan Cooper is attributed with being the first to describe personas in his 1998 book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. I’m not arguing against the premise that interaction design and user experience must stem from understanding a user’s goals and creating solutions that help them achieve those goals.
What concerns me is that creating personas can start to feel like…. creating stereotypes. And I keep wondering how boiling users down to a few personifications can still incorporate the true diversity of the pool of users, and how it can underrepresent marginalized groups.
One of the positive things that has grown out of some of the worst events of the past several years is awareness of the underrepresentation of so many groups within “mainstream” America. I feel like we are just starting to examine this issue and make small strides toward a more inclusive society. So this feels like an extremely difficult time to try to describe an individual user without seeming blind to the needs of so many.
This topic has been written about extensively, so I know that I am not alone in my discomfort here. Which in itself feels like a call to delve more deeply into the issue. As I said before, there is no doubt that as designers, researchers, and marketers, we must humanize our customers. We must let them tell us what they need, what their goals are, what stands in the way of them achieving those goals. But also understand some of the larger cultural forces that are part of their problems. Perhaps those are way beyond what any of our products or services can begin to address, but we still need to hear about them and empathize.
Image from istock