Why do I bring this up? Because, like another UX professional, Mads Soegaard, who said the origin of personas likely came from the theatrical traditions, I believe designers gather data to understand the personas that represent the users for whom they are designing a user interface. This is quite similar to the way actors must develop an understanding of their characters. So, developing their character-building and storytelling skills can help designers—just as it does actors. Constantin Stanislavski, whose method of actor training remains a crucial studying point for American actors, said it well:
“To create a believable character on-stage, the actor must become the human being that is the character he is portraying…must utilize a systematic method of gradually moving away from himself into another human individuality.”—Constantin Stanislavski, in An Actor Prepares
Personas: The Believable Characters That Help Designers Design
In the UX world, we know the value of personas. Personas do all of this for us:
- They lend a personal face to our user population.
- They provide guidance for design.
- They help us understand who it is we are designing for.
- They fill in for users when you can’t—or it isn’t practical to—talk to them.
We do not always have the luxury of actually getting to talk to users. In fact, sometimes we have nothing else to rely on but our personas when developing our ideas. But if personas are going to be useful, they have some big shoes to fill.
UX design is a form of communication that is not just visual or verbal. It is about the way we expect an interaction to happen—the complete experience. Thus, scenarios that help tell the stories of how our personas would interact—or act or perform—within a new design are also another level of communication beyond the verbal or visual. And more than just communication, UX design is empathy—an understanding of and identification with the user population. By developing this empathy, you can help ensure users can take full advantage of your product—being able to use it without frustration and with happiness, enjoyment, and engagement.
Believable Characters Don’t Exist on a Piece of Paper
No evangelizer of user-centered design would deny the value of personas and scenarios. However, we must admit that, sometimes, they just seem to be lacking something in their fleshing out that would make them real and tangible—truly believable characters and situations. They can be too abstracted or have too much fluff—for example, they may be cluttered with irrelevant details. No business stakeholder wants to know what kind of dog some fictional persona has or that their favorite TV show is American Idol—unless this helps drive needs that relate to the business.
There is another argument that personas and scenarios are often set in an ideal world that does not take into account the idiosyncrasies of real people who use machines—a perfect world in which nothing ever gets spilled on a computer and no one gets interrupted in the middle of his work. They are confined to a world in which nothing bad ever happens, and users do exactly what you want them to do. Well, we know that’s never going to happen.
Overcoming such limitations is a tough challenge for personas to meet. However, you can overcome them if your personas are empathetic, deep, and developed characters—if you take them off a two-dimensional page and breathe some life into them.
A stereotype—which, sadly, too many personas more closely resemble—serves only to act as a shallow mental picture that provides little benefit. That’s why I’ve never liked using the word archetype in reference to personas. This term is too academic and lifeless to adequately describe what a persona should be and accomplish—becoming a deep and dimensioned character.
Where Does the Deep, Empathetic, and Believable Character Begin?
It’s no wonder UX designers experience difficulties when actually trying to put shallow, lifeless personas and scenarios to use. Designers need to be able to integrate the knowledge they gain from a persona with their existing knowledge and practices to feel at home with it and use it efficiently. In essence, I believe what designers truly need is to go back to the theatrical traditions from which personas came and understand character and story development better. Then they can begin to develop an empathetic version of a deep and believable character—a persona that actually helps them to design the right solution.
Making the mental leap from actors transforming into characters to designers imagining themselves as personas is such a simple one. That is, in essence, where personas began. Alan Cooper, who was the first to lay out a process for developing personas, acknowledges the influence of Method Acting—having read Stanislavsky’s books—on his processes for the development of personas and scenarios. He understands the importance of an empathetic approach to personas.
“One touted benefit of personas is to provide a human face so as to focus empathy on the persons represented by the demographics.”—Alan Cooper