What you see when you Google for "ux persona"
What you see when you Google for "ux persona"

Why your heart matters in UX research

When we fail to empathize with our users and customers, our "research" just serves to perpetuate existing stereotypes.

The first question in UX is: “whom are we designing for?”. It’s a crucial question since designing for everyone is the same as designing for no one. The Internet is full of stories and examples of what happens when you fail to heed this commandment of UX. Designing without knowing whom you’re designing for leads to products and services that serve no one’s needs.

This perspective is what separates user experience design from plain classic design. Whereas classic designers rely on their intuition, user experience (UX) designers take care to understand whom they’re designing for. They rely on an amalgamation of creativity and personal judgment as well as rigorous research and testing. This is an iterative process where there’s room for both artistry and analytical thinking.

As the ideas from UX have spread to other disciplines, so has the process of design. Thoughts that originated in the UX sphere are now the staple in marketing, business strategy, customer experience, service design and software engineering. Their impact has deepened and broadened.

Introducing personas

One of the most common tools used UX to make sense of users is the persona. Credited to UX guru and influencer Alan Cooper in the early ‘90s, personas allow us to generalize about larger groups of users by summarizing key characteristics that seem relevant to the UX problems being solved. Personas are usually visually appealing, colorful and attractive to work with and show clients. Why they’ve become a very popular tool.

Googling for “persona ux” returns hundreds of thousands of results. Here are just some:

Google for personas

Personas should ideally be based on interviews and “soft” data (which can be confirmed with “hard” data) collected from a wide range of individuals. By talking to lots of different people, the UX practitioner will eventually discover patterns in how people think and reason. The basic idea is then that this will eventually make it evident that a large group of people can be divided into smaller groups with consistent properties. These can be described based on preferences, opinions, needs and goals. These groups are then represented by a persona each.

It’s the generalizing power of the persona that has made it so popular in UX. It’s a way to break down complex data into something we as designers can refer to as decide how a process should work or what a form should look like. It allows you to put a problem in a context. The persona is used so frequently that many UX design firms have ready-made persona templates. As a result, many UX professionals blindly use such templates without reflecting over how this affects their work.

As with all tools, what you include and exclude is relevant. In the case of the persona there’s a lot of creativity going on. As you can see from the screenshot below, designers have invented countless ways to visualize user skills and personality. It’s also very common to attribute personal information to personas in order to “flesh them out” and make them more “relatable”.

A classic persona template
A “classic” persona template from: https://fakecrow.com/free-persona-template/

This point was made during an interview I conducted last year with a usability professional. One of the things we discussed were the benefits of behavior-oriented versus characteristics-oriented personas.

The personas you see in the two pictures above are almost exclusively based on characteristics and goals and are less focused on behavior. They tend to have titles like “Steven Shopper” and “Michele Mechanic”. A persona based on behavior would have a title like “The information seeker” is describe a set of behaviors. Perhaps the term persona is a misnomer here. Some recommend using the term “user group”. But the main difference is that behaviors aren’t mutually exclusive so a user can belong to multiple behavioral personas (or user groups) but only one “classic” persona. Behavioral personas are dynamic.

As you can see in the persona template above, this isn’t such a persona. It’s about static characteristics. The designer has deemed it pertinent to also speculate about the user’s lifestyle, age, gender and MBTI personality type (which is hogwash by the way). They also made sure to paste a picture to make the persona even more “relatable”. And hence the problems.

Inferences run amok

If there’s something our brains are incredibly good at it’s inferring information based on just a few clues. If we cannot infer, we get nervous. I think this is one of the reasons why people who choose not to belong to established categories are often being prejudiced against. Gender is one such category that we seem to instinctually look for when we meet someone new. Along with the perception of genders comes a long list of assumptions that there’s no evidence of. Sexism is often rooted in these “cognitive shortcuts” that were useful at one point in evolution but now stand in the way of progress.

One great example is a story I read in a magazine years ago. It reads like a riddle:

“A son and his father have been in a car accident. The father was killed but the son survived with severe injuries. The son arrives at the hospital and while being prepped for surgery the surgeon comes in, sees the patient and says: ‘I cannot operate on my own son!’” How was this possible?

The answer is of course that the surgeon was the mother of the patient. This isn’t as much a riddle as a test to see how stereotypical our thinking is, surgeon being a traditionally male-dominated profession.

Similarly, when we load up our personas with information to make them “relatable” we risk loading them with stereotypes. This could be argued not being a problem isn’t a problem since stereotypes tend to reflect society at large. But as UX professionals (whether in design, marketing or strategy) we hold power and we can decide whether we want to enforce stereotypes or fight them. Whether we want to be including or excluding in how we relate to people.

Personas are all about empathy

In a blog post from March, UX designer Indi Young makes the case for getting inside the heads of your users instead of relying on just listing preferences:

“To actually bring a description to life, to actually develop empathy, you need the deeper, underlying reasoning behind the preferences and statements-of-fact. You need the reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles. A Better Life and Casey descriptions contain the deeper concepts.”

Characteristics, like in the example above, stand in the way of true understanding as she writes:

“Statements-of-fact, preferences, and demographics frequently serve as distracting barriers. They kick off all kinds of subconscious reactions in team members minds. For instance, phrases such as “low-income,” “single mother,” and “good at math” mean something to you because of your own life experience, people you know, and things you’ve read. It takes extra mental effort to get out from under what you already think in response to these phrases”

Indi Young also quotes another wonderful example of anti-empathic user experience design:

“One client used a photo of a young blonde-haired woman. That persona would get dismissed as ‘The Blonde.’” Sophie Dennis

Indi Young concludes that only empathy matters when it comes to personas. Without empathy, they’re less than useless, harmful even.

What we can learn from all this

Key here is the ability to empathize and having done real research and performing interviews. Personas are based on empathy. Flipping through your company’s Facebook page and Twitter responses and coming up with personas is just unprofessional. It will lead to the kind of biased, demographics-based and stereotypical personas seen above. It will not yield any insights that lead to better design.

The conclusion I’ve drawn is that the best personas describe the users’ real motivations, reasoning and behavior. They don’t come with a gender or background. They don’t let us draw unwarranted conclusions and unfairly generalize. But they let us design, evaluate and confirm what we’re making.

This article was updated on 2020-03-01

Jakob Persson

Your host. A founder and entrepreneur since 20 years. Having worked as a freelancer, consultant and co-founder of a successful digital agency has shaped his skills in and insights into business. Jakob blogs at blog.bondsai.io, speaks at events and consults with agencies and freelancers in growing and developing their companies. He holds degrees in media technology and cognitive science.