Personas: Explorations in Developing a Deep and Dimensioned Character

By Traci Lepore

Published: August 23, 2010

Who has been frustrated or had issues with trying to use personas effectively? … Personas are often emotionless, easily forgotten or dropped altogether, and difficult to share with others in a way that got them engaged.”

I started off a recent presentation by asking how many people in the room had used personas. About 85% of around 50 people raised their hands. Almost every one of these people also raised their hands to the question Who has been frustrated or had issues with trying to use personas effectively? When I asked what was causing these issues, people responded that personas are often emotionless, easily forgotten or dropped altogether, and difficult to share with others in a way that got them engaged. Not surprising really. These are the same issues I’ve been tackling when it comes personas, too. I have felt their pain.

In my column “What’s My Persona? Developing a Deep and Dimensioned Character,” I talked about developing believable characters for personas that are emotionally engaging to help overcome these issues and make personas more effective. To solve some of the pitfalls of developing and using personas, I proposed activities as simple as doing a dramatic reading of the personas, as well as more complicated character-development activities that have their basis in theatrical training.

If we are going to begin to address these issues, we need to get at the root of the problem—our empathetic understanding of our users. Having empathy for users and understanding their needs doesn’t come from reading words on a page. It doesn’t come from statistical analysis of demographics either. It comes from truly embodying and experiencing the character of a persona, so it becomes ingrained emotionally and physically in our memories. Actors understand this. From the time Stanislavski began teaching Method Acting—a process of transformation in which actors begin to take on the true nature of a character—actors have referred to this moment when they realize a character’s emotional memory and have truly become the character as the moment of embodiment. I’ve recently had the opportunity to explore these ideas in a real and practical setting and want to share my experience and the feedback I received with you.

A Partner-In-Crime Appears

“Truly experiencing the personas would help to ensure they’re not forgotten and left by the wayside when the time comes to design.”

Byron Stewart, actor and cofounder of Dramatic Diversity / DD+D read my article on personas and decided to contact me. We found in each other kindred spirits who both strongly believe in the abilities of character building and good storytelling to take lifeless personas to the next level and make them real to us. So we decided to embark on a little project to put together an introductory workshop that would allow us to take our ideas from the theoretical to the practical.

With a potential audience and a tight timeframe, we began to plan what would be an hour-long exploration of practical experiences for participants. We wanted a combination of theoretical background, which would help explain why theater makes sense in this context, but also some hands-on participation for the audience. Since empathy requires experience and putting yourself in another’s shoes, we knew we needed to get the audience actively involved. We couldn’t let them get away with idly sitting by and observing. This wasn’t going to be your traditional presentation. So we started our planning based on that premise.

It was difficult to decide what kind of activity would fit into the available timeframe, yet still give the audience a sense of what it means to embody and dramatize personas. In the end, we decided to split the group in two, asking half of the participants to write quick-and-dirty personas and the other half to act them out—or embody them in an improvised manner, using some props. We thought this would allow participants to get some experience with the kind of role-playing actors do, which would allow them to develop authentic stories and scenarios naturally and give them a sense of the insights role-playing can reveal. Plus, truly experiencing the personas would help to ensure they’re not forgotten and left by the wayside when the time comes to design.

At the last moment, Byron, in a moment of brilliance, decided to add a little example that clearly demonstrated the difference an embodied character can make in communicating the wants and needs and emotional state of a fictional character. In preparation for this, he took a narrative from a play and turned it into a monologue. Then, during the workshop, he planned to initially ask a participant to read the monologue aloud, then perform it himself. It is said that actions speak louder than words. In this case, I do believe this was true. Nothing could better illustrate the points I had made in “Developing a Deep and Dimensioned Character”—that a believable and three-dimensional character has psychology, physiology, and sociology, as well as inner goals, needs, and desires.

A Trial Run Proves Successful

“The comparison between the material being read versus acted was compelling and clear.”

Byron recently ran the workshop for the first time with a group of people who were experienced with developing personas. To both of our delight, it was a success. Some of the participants feedback at the end of the session included these comments:

  • “Very effective. The comparison between the material being read versus acted was compelling and clear.”
  • “It was effective because it created useful analogies between theater and design.”
  • “Helpful for us to understand how to construct characters that are usable and portrayable by others.”
  • “The emphasis on emotion helped bring the persona to life.”
  • “Helped me to see ways to enhance research and persona writing techniques.”
  • “I think this would be good for brainstorms and briefings.”
  • “Helps designers and developers understand how to think from the character’s perspective.”

The only major negative was that the available time didn’t allow the two groups of participants to switch between persona-writing and role-playing responsibilities, so each of them could try doing both. Nonetheless, it was apparent that we achieved our main goals. The participants got a taste of what embodied and dramatic personas could do for them—even for a group people who were experienced in developing personas.

The participants got a taste of what embodied and dramatic personas could do for them—even for a group people who were experienced in developing personas.

Probably even more encouraging than the debrief comments was a blog post, “Making Personas More Personable,” one of the workshop participants wrote afterward. He found the workshop timely and its value clear. In his post, Mo Goltz says:

“Using theater as part of the design process can take persona development from the prescriptive to the realm of [the] 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.”
—Mo Goltz

And my favorite of his comments—which shows the analogies between theater and design are clear, even to non-theater people:

“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.”—Mo Goltz

“For personas, my ultimate goal is to make them truly actionable during user experience design….”

When I provided an overview of this workshop in a 10-minute presentation, during which I showed a video of Byron’s monologue, the audience became energized and had many questions. The difference in what his monologue communicated was apparent even secondhand.

When I asked what further insights they had about the character after seeing Byron’s portrayal, many chimed in with comments that showed they had clearly learned more about the true emotional state and motivation of the character. They understood—in a way the initial dry reading could never let them understand—the true goals and intentions of the character and how they played out during the performance of the story. How much easier would it be to design with that kind of understanding? How many arguments in design conversations could we alleviate when such clear needs get articulated? The feedback Byron and I received provides positive answers to these questions. For personas, my ultimate goal is to make them truly actionable during user experience design, so you can imagine my joy in seeing how easily the audience picked up on the implications of their new perspectives on the character.

Lessons Learned for the Future

“Capturing and sharing insights are key, because the insights we gain are the main value we get from this exercise.”

The feedback and interest this workshop has garnered shows that this approach does help to address some of the most common, major issues with personas. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still more issues to address and approaches to discover. But at least what we learned from this workshop has helped put a spotlight on opportunities to further develop our approach.

Truly connecting role-playing to creating personas is one of the biggest areas I still see a need to address. How do we go about capturing the insights we learn from these activities, so we can incorporate them in the personas we write? Then, how do we communicate these insights to other groups in our company and to stakeholders? Some thoughts that immediately come to mind:

  • It would help to have a scribe, whose responsibility is to capture everyone’s insights during the role-playing.
  • It would be beneficial to capture some video for later review.

My use of the video from Byron’s workshop in my presentation showed me the power of presenting such engaging material. We can share video over and over again and get positive results every time. Capturing and sharing insights are key, because the insights we gain are the main value we get from this role-playing exercise. It would be a tragedy if they were lost.

Our biggest challenges moving forward are figuring out how we can build on this introductory workshop and develop some more in-depth exercises for participants. What further character-building and storytelling exercises would provide the best and most revealing experiences for participants? Should the audience members participate in the role-playing themselves, or would they prefer to have professional actors take on the embodiment task? How would such choices affect how we work with participants? What kind of research do we need to do and how can we use it effectively as fodder for role-playing exercises?

Despite the work we still need to do to further develop and translate our ideas into real and practical activities, I am encouraged and energized to keep moving forward. Embodied personas that reflect deep and dimensioned characters are becoming an attainable reality.

2 Comments

I think personas are going to be the wave of the future for many online users. I have been spooked by Google’s Eric Schmidt’s saying young people should plan on changing their name when they get into young adulthood.

I know you are speaking of storyboards. I just got a small bit of a shudder when I saw this article, thinking about UX folks.

- Aaron, Utah SEO

The idea of people developing and becoming their online personas is a little scary, definitely agreed. Though that isn’t what I’m advocating here—more just the kind of work actors do to understand a role so they can convey it to the audience.

What specifically are you referring to about storyboards? Would love to understand the reaction.

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