Making Personas More Personable
Blog Post by Mo Goltz
I recently had the opportunity to attend a seminar with the Insight & Planning team to learn about creating authentic personas. The seminar’s focus was around creating personas that are more like real people rather than the flat, somewhat contrived versions that’s aren’t entirely uncommon. Byron Stewart, an actor and co-owner of Dramatic Diversity showed us how we can use techniques from the world of theater to create personas.
This may sound strange, but he had some excellent points that hit a nerve with professionals who have been seeing a troubling trend amidst persona design. Many of us are aware of the theoretical value behind personas, but let me take a minute to illustrate how a robust, well-defined persona can make scenarios come alive.
Let’s take a well-known character from the annals of American Pop culture… Homer Simpson. Imagine him walking from the Quickie Mart to Moe’s Tavern in the town of Springfield. Now imagine him using whatever design you’re working on now. No, seriously, stop reading for a second and imagine it.
— Insert your daydream sequence —
The point of this little exercise is that since Homer’s character has been so well developed we can actually see him in our mind’s eye with a strong sense of his perspective on the world. Complete with imperfections and personality quirks that you’ve likely observed in various situations throughout the years, it isn’t so difficult to imagine what he might do using your design. Dare I say it could even be fun and helpful?
Love them or hate them, personas are an established way to put more of the user in the user-centered design process. When utilized properly personas get you out of your own head, designing for the target to make their lives easier and make the experience extraordinary. As humans we are inherently biased, and it can be easy to fall into the trap of making design decisions based on our own preferences, opinions, and proclivities. However, depending on the products or service, the actual users may be nothing like you. Choices that would work for you using your own design could just as likely frustrate and confuse your target audience. This may sound obvious but we all see far too many examples of poor user-experience planning in the products, customer service, marketing and packaging we encounter every day. According to the consulting firm Accenture, “almost 95 percent of electronic goods that are returned are not faulty and 68 percent of customers just that they can’t figure out how to use them!” Just think about any TV remote you’ve ever used.
The question then becomes how to make decisions that will satisfy yourUSER’s needs while providing an enjoyable experience for them. Sounds easyas pie, right? If a high quality persona is developed as a strong character with a specific point of view, using them in your work is like having a representative of your future user base at your beck and call. The persona helps guide you on your design journey.
As a designer committed to user-centered methods, I have noticed a disturbing trend that was voiced by many Planners and Information Architects in the seminar. More and more personas aren’t evolving beyond an abstract, bulleted list of personality traits, preferences, and other assorted details with an associated mug shot of some random person. These personas-esque creations are veering toward the stereotypical, the hollow and the fabricated. They can’t help us see the world from their point of view because they don’t have a point of view. They aren’t real to us–no more real than the androgynous mannequins at American Apparel, at least. To be a useful tool, a persona should be a character that is real enough for you to conjure up in your imagination, one you can ask yourself what he or she would do in a given situation. The personas that often get created aren’t robust enough to help us out in that department. Here is where theater comes in.
As it turns out, theater has a lot in common with design. (No, not just an affinity for skinny jeans.) The overlap is so obvious that it belies the depth of its utility. In theater there are characters in scenes, and in design there are personas in scenarios. In acting, much time and attention is spent on understanding a character’s motivations, their emotions, their wants and needs. If all falls into place, the audience doesn’t see someone pretending, they see a real person come to life. Even those of us (like me) with no acting background can leverage this thinking by augmenting persona development to bring them alive and make them more meaningful.
What if each member of your team ‘owned’ one persona? S/he would be the explicit advocate before any features are added or removed to the persona. This team member would my spend time determining how the target might FEEL about this, and how s/he would react. If the persona is a fleshed out character that you’ve spent days thinking about–comparing to people you know that are similar to her, discovering commonalities that you share, figuring out what s/he wants or feels—s/he would be much more natural and far from arbitrary. Get everyone on your team to know their personas intimately and then showcase them to others. Your personas can even be used in body storming (The act of combining brainstorming with the physical exploration and ideation) to enact likely behaviors.
Using Theater as part of the design process can take persona development from the prescriptive to the realm of descriptive. Your users are more likely to have amazing experiences interacting with your designs if they are more thoroughly and comprehensively considered at every stage of the design process. One of the best ways to accomplish this lofty goal is to create personas that are real to you, to the full team, and to stakeholders. If you chose to add theater-based methods to your design toolkit, Stewart ensures the user will be at the core of what you create.