What Is Personality?
To design personality, we must first understand it. Psychology offers numerous models of personality that center around free will, biology, genetics, and even the unconscious mind. For the purpose of designing products, we can consider personality as a combination of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
We can simplify this idea as follows:
What you say or think + What you do = Personality
And from a UX designer’s perspective:
User Interface + Functionality = Product Personality
Until computers develop an unconscious mind or the desire to take over the world, this simplification will suffice.
There are two parts to this equation. Conveying personality is not just matter of adding a witty line of copy or a logo with a smiley face without any behavior to back it up. Nor is it a robotic handshake without any warmth or intention. We create personality when a product says or does something in a way that lets users attribute human qualities to it. So, not only do you need both parts of the equation, you generally need to design them with the intention of developing a personality.
Personality Design Thinking
Personality design has been around for a long time. There are some existing methods that designers have employed, and there has been a little research on the topic. Techniques for designing personality range from creating full-blown personality models that are suitable for artificial intelligence to ad-hoc solutions that occur during a typical design process.
Chris Crawford created one of the most complete personality models back in the early days of Atari. He was part of the Atari games research group and published a book titled Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling. In the book, he details a personality model that is specific to game design. Designing personality begins by mapping all possibilities of interactions between characters and the story world that they inhabit. The designer describes each character’s personality in detail by generating a set of intrinsic, mood, relationship, and other personality attributes. Once the modeling is complete, the software can programmatically determine the personality of the characters, their context, and their behavior when interacting in the game. As you can imagine, it’s a great model for designing virtual characters in a finite, virtual world. Unfortunately, many of us outside the game design industry might find using this model impractical—either because we do not need something this robust or because the world in which we live is infinitely more complex than a virtual one.
At the other end of the spectrum, personality makes its way into product design in smaller ways. Tiffany Gimbel, a Senior Copywriter at Zappos, infuses personality into what would otherwise be generic, system-generated email confirmations. Tiffany describes her mission: “Our goal is to infuse every triggered and transactional email with equal doses of humor, information, and conversational tone. Ultimately, we want users to feel like they’re more than just customers to us….” Tiffany does not work from a tangible personality model, and she doesn’t need one. All she needs to do is contribute her piece of the Zappos puzzle, so users experiencing multiple touchpoints get a sense of Zappos—not as a faceless corporation, but as a company with people who care.
You can design for personality just as effectively using a full-blown model or a style guide. What matters is that your method fits the product context and users’ social needs. Still, there is much opportunity for UX designers to incorporate personality design into our existing design process.
Personality Design Framework
Personality design is so integral to product design that it is not possible outside the product design process. The best personality design framework is the one that you already use. The personality design framework that I’ll describe here comprises the following steps, which can help you to think through all of the necessary aspects of personality design:
- State the goal.
- Describe the personality.
- Define the personality’s scope.
- Define the product architecture.
- Define the user flows.
- Design the product’s personality.
Please keep these steps in mind. You can adapt them to whatever design process you currently employ.
1. State the goal.
Articulate the product’s reason for being, and envision how it will fit into peoples’ lives. Be clear about the context in which people will use it, and think about the product’s significance to users.
Example—Company X wants to create a tool that helps people to eat healthily. They know that their audience struggles with this, and research has shown that a product that tracks people’s food intake and keeps them accountable would be effective. They know that, for the product to be successful, people should be able to access it anywhere and anytime—for example, at a restaurant at dinnertime.
2. Describe the personality.
There as many personalities as there are people on this planet. Through user research and brainstorming sessions, determine what personality traits would enable your product to reach its goals. Write them down and begin to describe your product as a person. Who does this product need to be? And more importantly, what type of person would not be effective? Defining negative attributes for your product is just as effective as defining positive ones.
Example—The product is a motivating coach that cheers users on when they set goals and achieve them. But the product is also compassionate and wants to be proactive in helping users if they fall short of their goals. Above all, the product never judges users. Nor should it ever make them feel like they’re a disappointment.
If you need help getting started, do a search for personality traits, and review each one with your team. You can put pluses next to attributes you want to include and minuses by attributes that you want to avoid. If you want to take a more nuanced approach, you can score each trait on a scale from 1–5. In the end, you should have a list of traits that you can use to articulate your product’s personality in a few sentences. Table 1 shows a list of positive and negative personality traits that a product might have.
|Positive Traits||Negative Traits|
+ Anticipative (5)
- Calm (3)