Once upon a time… introducing Narrative Personas

We can use a classic script-writing technique to help shape positive experiences of change.

Preamble

First, an admission: I’m deeply committed to human-centred design, but I’m also deeply skeptical about personas.

Like any design artefact, personas should be judged by their impact on the design process. As often as not, they reinforce stereotypes or simply lend legitimacy to marketing segments on which they’re based. Personas are not a silver-bullet, and they should not be treated as the sufficient evidence of a commitment to HCD.

Personas do not guarantee empathy.

But let’s not blame the artefact — it’s not the persona’s fault. The problem is that we build personas without reflecting on the reasons why we’re building them.

Here is short list of 8 different reasons why we might use personas:

  1. identify pain points of a product/service that are specific to a type of user or context of use
  2. drive innovation / generate new feature ideas
  3. counter projection / stereotyping within the design team
  4. differentiate different kinds of value a product/service has in different contexts
  5. select a target or targets as a focus for improving a customer experience
  6. identify interactions, conversations or relationships that are critical to perceiving or exploiting the value of a product/service
  7. distinguish different barriers to value perception / extraction
  8. identify different stressors and emotional highs and lows in the customer experience

My point is simply that the decision about the kind of persona we use — indeed, whether we use them at all — should be driven by what we’re trying to achieve.

In many situations, the making of personas is far more important than the final product. Like all representations, when a persona is used as a substitute for listening and learning from an audience, it no long facilitates empathy, it blocks it.

With those caveats out of the way, let me introduce you to a new kind of persona I’ve developed. A persona focused on modelling the experience of change.

Once upon a time…

Back in 2012, Emma Coats, a former story artist at Pixar, tweeted 22 tips for scriptwriters (listed here). Out of these, #4 stood out:

#4 Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. And because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This is, of course, a classic narrative arc.

But it also works as a template for capturing how attitudes and behaviours might change. Let’s break it down.

  • Once upon a time there was [ character / current attitude ]
  • Every day, [ habits / opinions / barriers to change]
  • One day, [ disruption ]
  • Because of that, [ experiment ]
  • And because of that, [ reward ]
  • Until finally [ new habit / attitude ]

An Example

Here’s an example of using this template to think through UX adoption in a large bank.

Once upon a time there was… a project manager named Maria. She has been burned by her previous experience of using formal UX research processes on projects, which tend to change the scope of the project in ways that are hard to predict.

Normally, She knows she should be doing more UX research, but wishes UX practitioners were more sensitive to budget and timing considerations.

But one day, Maria is encouraged by her manager to develop a UX risk profile for her current project, and to come up with appropriate mitigation strategies. Maria feels that risk management is her responsibility, but has never thought of UX as a way of mitigating risk before. She’s also never felt like she had a choice about what tools to use.

Because of that, Maria finds herself asking her team to review the wireframes to identify assumptions they are making about user behaviours, and looks for efficient tools to validate these assumptions by testing with customers. She discovers lightweight tools and techniques which seem better suited to her project’s needs.

And because of that, Maria feels she can now estimate the investment required to properly mitigate these risks. Maria has an informed conversation with her boss about UX validation, and is praised for her excellent plan.

From then on, anticipating future conversations with her boss, Maria asks her team to identify customer assumptions and risks earlier in the project, and encourages her team to use UX tools earlier in the design process.

But one day…

Creating this example helped me realise that this is model works best when it incorporates what we already know about behavioural change .

For example, if you look closely at the moment of disruption (the “But one day…” section), you’ll see it includes 3 parts, which are familiar from research on habit:

  1. An Event, a Trigger — Maria is encouraged by her manager to develop a UX risk profile for her current project, and to come up with appropriate mitigation strategies.
  2. A Value or Desire — Maria feels that risk management is her responsibility
  3. A Freedom or Capability. — Maria has never thought of UX as a way of mitigating risk before. She’s also never felt like she had a choice about what tools to use.

Because of that… And because of that…

Moreover, this template challenges us to recognize two more stages in the experience of change.

  • The experiment — the first “Because of that”, i.e. where she asks her team to do something different, and
  • The reward — the second “And because of that”, which is both an internal boost in confidence, and external recognition.

It’s here that most attempts at change break down, and these are the components of the story that are least within our control. But they are critical for converting the event into a new behaviour or attitude.

Recap

Ok, let’s recap what we’ve got so far…

  • Once upon a time there was [ character / current attitude ]
  • Every day, [ habits / opinions / barriers to change]

Together these first two pieces form a “traditional” persona.

  • One day, [ disruption ]

This disruption is actually in three parts: An Event, A Value and a Capability (or new freedom).

  • Because of that, [ experiment ]
  • And because of that, [ reward ]

Next follows the Experiment and the Reward, both of which are fragile, open to failure, and can be realised in a whole bunch of ways.

  • Until finally [ new habit / attitude ]

Only if everything comes together we successful give rise to a new behaviour or attitude.

Texas Hold ‘Em

I said at the start that the act of creating personas is as critical as the artefact itself (perhaps even more so). The same is true of Narrative Personas. So I want to take a moment to share a model of how Narrative Persona writing can be gamified.

I don’t play a lot of poker, but I’ve always found Texas Hold ’Em Poker a lot of fun. While thinking through the idea of Narrative Personas, I realised that each hand in Texas Hold ’Em has, at its heart, the same story structure. This is probably what gives the game it’s addictive drama, but also suggests a new way of writing good narratives.

The way Texas Hold ’Em works is like this:

  1. The Deal: Every player starts with 2 cards in their hand
  2. Players decide to play or to quit (“fold”)
  3. The Flop: The dealer deals 3 cards face-up onto the table
  4. First round of betting (I won’t go into betting in any detail here, it’s not really relevant to the analogy)
  5. The Turn: The dealer deals a 4th card
  6. Another round of betting
  7. The River: The dealer deals a 5th card
  8. Final round of betting
  9. The Outcome: Players reveal their cards, and the winner takes the pot.

The winner is the player who can make the best poker hand, using the two cards they have, plus any 3 of the 5 cards on the table.

— — —

How does this resemble the “Once upon a time” story structure above?

The Outcome = New Habit / Attitude

Well, obviously, for the analogy to work, we need to see “winning” — i.e. having a great hand at the end of the round — as equivalent to successfully changing behaviour or an attitude.

The Deal = Your Character

  • Once upon a time there was [ character / current attitude ]
  • Every day, [ habits / opinions / barriers to change]

These first two cards form the hand your character is dealt.

The Flop = Disruption

  • One day, [ disruption ]

We said this disruption is actually in three parts: An Event, A Value and a Capability (or new freedom). Think of this as 3 separate cards, making up the flop.

What’s nice about this analogy is that, in poker too, the flop changes your perception of your situation. What looked like a very poor hand can suddenly become incredibly powerful after the flop is dealt.

The Turn = Experiment

  • Because of that, [ experiment ]

The turn is the Experiment. Staying in the game means you think you have a chance of success. The Experiment is also an act built on optimism or hope.

The River = Reward

  • And because of that, [ reward]

The final card is where we move beyond doubt. This is the moment when hope is validated or thwarted; when all the cards are on the table (literally and metaphorically).

Playing Poker to Create Narrative Personas

The final part of the analogy between Texas Hold ’Em and Narrative Personas is the role of the designer.

As a designer, you are a benevolent card dealer, attempting to deal cards in ways that will maximise the value of all the hands held by the different players.

You have sitting around the table a group of people (your personas, characterised by their existing roles, attitudes and habits), and your job is to deliver a flop, a turn and a river that will give everyone a strong hand.

Our job is to give them a hand in affecting change.

POSTSCRIPT

When I asked the inimitable Alastair Somerville for feedback on this piece, I discovered he’d had the same idea, and developed what he calls storyspine postcards to gamify their development (rather more creative than Texas Hold ’Em, IMHO!).

If you enjoyed this piece, please click the heart below.

If you’d like to continue the conversation, or you’re looking for someone to help you think through a problem or a project, please get in touch via Twitter or LinkedIn.