Building Empathy and Guiding Design with Personas

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We like to put each other in nice, neat little boxes. You’re old, you’re young. You’re liberal, you’re conservative. You’re outgoing. You’re shy. Usually, I advocate against doing this because the human experience is diverse and complicated. But there are practical reasons why you might need to categorize people as a user experience (UX) designer.

No one website, app, or piece of software can cater to the infinite number of differences its users may have. You simply can’t design everything for everybody. You can, though, look for the common denominators in people and solve for those problems.

While a website may have a million users, each with a unique experience on the granular level, you may create just 3 or 4 personas into which most of them would relate in some way. You would do this in order to keep your project user-centered, but out of the weeds and focused on attainable goals.

What Are Personas?

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A persona is a fictional person you create as a means of synthesizing and communicating the information you have collected about your users through interviews, observations, and surveys. They are archetypes based on the patterns you find in this user research. Deciding on what your personas will be and how many you will make requires sorting your research, as is explained through the analogy of rock sorting in the video below.

Unlike demographic profiles that include mostly statistical data, personas generally include specific details like a photo, name, age, or even favorite color in order to make them more relatable. Any detail your users provide during your research process, such as a direct quote, that is relevant for your project can help to bring a persona to life.

I’m a theatre geek so I like to think of it in terms of creating a character for a play, the play is your website, app, or software. You need to flesh out and add distinct details to the characters that reside in your play’s world to help an audience understand and relate to them. It’s generally not interesting to watch a play about Character 1 and Character 2 — unless those names are an avant-garde commentary on the world.

The same is true for personas. As a designer, it’s much easier and more tangible to talk about “George” rather than “users” when making decisions. “Users” is a vague term that encompasses everybody and leads to designs that work for nobody. In lieu of any concrete picture of these “users” to hold on to, designers will often default to designing for themselves, which, of course, does not serve the needs of the user – the goal of the design thinking process.

Why CreATE pERSONAS?

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It’s not a small amount of effort to create a fully fleshed-out persona, but increasingly top brands and companies are investing in this tool. Spotify even produced a podcast episode dedicated to talking about how and why they created their personas. Some UX professionals, though, believe personas are not worth the work they entail. More, however, find them an invaluable asset in the design thinking process because they help:

  • Build empathy which helps designers make decisions from the point of view of the users of a product.
  • Create and maintain focus around who, exactly, a product is being designed for throughout the process.
  • Communicate user knowledge with team members or other company members to create a shared understanding of the research findings. Personas are meant to be deliverables that can be circulated company-wide to get everyone on the same page about users.
  • Make and defend decisions throughout the design process. The empathy personas build helps designers understand who they are designing for and how they should design it. If these decisions are questioned, designers can then use personas as a tangible reference to explain their reasoning.
  • Test for success when real users are unavailable due to time or budget constraints. Just like an actor and a character, you can have someone play a persona while going through a user experience example in order to test if design decisions are on the right track.

If personas fail, it’s often because people simply don’t understand them, how they should be used, and how to create accurate expectations of what they will include and achieve, as the video below explains.

Persona Design and Content

There are no hard and fast rules for what information should be in a persona or how it should be presented. Generally speaking, it is helpful for personas to be laid out as 1 page to allow for people to see all content in conversation and for them to be printed out and hung in workspaces for quick reference. It’s also a good idea to make personas visually appealing and well organized to help people to better engage with them.

All personas need to include a photo that’s unique to what this person would look like, wear, and the kind of environment you would see them in. Generic stock photos of smiling people against a white backdrop are not as helpful in creating the illusion of a real person. Which one of these people below feels more like an actual person to you?

Photo by RobinHiggins (left) and nastya_gepp (right) at pixabay.com

Some persona designs have a lot of written information and others rely more on icons and other visual elements to communicate. Once again, there is no inherently right direction. Think of what would help people on your team empathize and understand more. The point of personas is not the actual document, but the user understanding you gain from it.

The same is true of the content. Like I said you do need a name for your persona and some detailed information — goals, motivations, frustrations and influences as relates to their use of your website, app, or software but only the most important pieces. You may know your users’ favorite ice cream flavors, but if you’re not working at Ben & Jerry’s that information may be useless to understanding your users’ needs and clutter up your personas.

On the other hand, there is some content you may want to include because it speaks details without being detailed. For example, if you say someone uses an Android instead of an iPhone or prefers American cars over foreign cars or only shops at Whole Foods you start to get an idea of what kind of a person this is without literally being told much at all. If you’re working on a technology, automotive, or food-related website this could be very insightful information.

Just be discerning in your choices. Including every little detail about your users will only overwhelm people and render your personas unhelpful.

Information you include should also not be obvious. Obvious things are usually well known and add little value. Personas are valuable because they present details that help you gain a deeper understanding of your users than you had before you used them. If you are designing a dating app, a persona may have as a goal for using the app “to become more social to help fight depression and loneliness” rather than just “to meet someone to date.”

Persona Examples

With over 150 million subscribers worldwide, Netflix is a juggernaut in the world of streaming services. It also means they have to know how to cater to the needs of millions of users, including myself. They no doubt have personas representing various segments of their user base from which they make decisions about their website and app, such as their recent introduction of the option to turn off the much-vilified autoplay feature.

Using A Guide to Personas by Ben Ralph, Founder and Head of Product & Experience at Beaker & Flint, I’ve created 2 sample personas for Netflix users. One based on me, the Binge-watching Young Professional, and another hypothetical user named Barb Johnson, the Cord-cutting Retired Baby Boomer.

The most glaring difference I noticed between creating these 2 personas was that doing one based on myself was much easier. I know myself and my motivations, frustrations, and preferences and had explored my feelings of using Netflix in a previous website analysis post. It, of course, takes some concentration to analyze your own psyche and behavior, but having studied theater I’ve engaged in this type of exercise a number of times, so it was familiar territory.

Working on Barb, though, proved to be a bit more challenging. Figuring out how to decide on the direction of this persona was the first challenge. I wanted it to be someone quite different from myself, with less technological confidence and less natural acceptance of streaming. Another woman of an older generation seemed a good choice because it’s realistic, with the mainstream success of Netflix, that there are probably enough Baby Boomer users to warrant this a consideration in persona building.

I started thinking of observations I’ve made of my own mother, friends, and family members who somewhat fit this type of person in order to logic out what goals, inhibitions, motivations, behaviors, and influencers this persona would contain. It took a lot of memory searching and pondering for the pieces to start fitting together, about 2-3 times longer than I had to take with myself.

Although the option exists for personas to be hypothetical like this, I would suggest sticking to basing them on actual user research. I didn’t feel nearly as confident about Barb as I did myself. Even though I was able to use conversations and experiences I’ve had with people for guidance on this persona my references felt personally biased and my sample size felt far too small to be accurately representative of users. I would have felt more comfortable with the information I decided to include if I’d drawn it from a larger response pool consisting of users who were previously unknown to me.

I also had to be very careful while working on Barb that I was not bleeding into her. A few times I caught myself writing behaviors or motivations down that were the exact same ones I’d included in my persona. I’m sure a user like Barb and a user like myself would share some similarities. As humans, we do, after all, have more that unites us than divides us. But, for the purposes of UX design, personas should be as distinct as possible from each in order to facilitate deeper empathy for as many types of users as possible.

This is the most enlightening thing I learned from creating these personas. Our minds are naturally attracted to the path of least resistance. Which in terms of empathy, means the types of people most like us. But as a UX designer, you need to push past your comfort and make curiosity about differences the focus of your user understanding — an effort which personas can both help you establish and maintain throughout any design process. 


References

Dam, R. F. & Teo, Y. S. (2020, January 15). Personas – A Simple Introduction. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/personas-why-and-how-you-should-use-them

Duncan S. (2019, March 25). Product personas are a waste of time. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/sparksgrove-uk/product-personas-are-a-waste-of-time-1815d72d02d5

Goltz, S. (2014, August 6). A Closer Look At Personas: What They Are And How They Work, Part 1. Smashing Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2014/08/a-closer-look-at-personas-part-1/

Haring, B. (2020, February 6). Netflix Installs New Option To Turn Off “Autoplay” Feature And End Automatic Previews. Deadline. Retrieved from https://deadline.com/2020/02/netflix-new-option-turn-off-autoplay-feature-1202853649/

Harley, A. (2015, February 15). Personas Make Users Memorable for Product Team Members. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/persona/

Mears, C. (2013, March22). Personas – The Beginner’s Guide. The UX Review. Retrieved from https://theuxreview.co.uk/personas-the-beginners-guide/

McCready, R. (2019, July 25). 20+ User Persona Examples, Templates and Tips For Targeted Decision-Making. Venngage. Retrieved from https://venngage.com/blog/user-persona-examples/

O’Connor, K. (2011, March 25). Personas: The Foundation of a Great User Experience. UX Magazine. Retrieved from Personas: The Foundation of a Great User Experience

Pallotta, F. ( 2019, October 16). Netflix misses on subscribers, but stock is up. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/16/media/netflix-third-quarter-earnings/index.html

Personas. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/personas.html

Ralph, B. (2017, May 21). A Guide to Personas. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/beakerandflint/personas-74c4e1c12ee2

Sauro, J. (2012, July 31). 7 Core Ideas About Personas and the User Experience. MeasuringU. Retrieved from https://measuringu.com/blog/personas-ux/

Spotify Research (2019, March 26). The Story of Spotify Personas. Spotify Design. Retrieved from https://spotify.design/articles/2019-03-26/the-story-of-spotify-personas/

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