Using ChatGPT for innovation: User personas & focus groups

Christian Graham
11 min readMar 2, 2023

In this post, we’ll look at how we can use ChatGPT to produce user personas — a valuable tool for design.

We discover ChatGPT can be persuaded to pretend to be the persona to allow us to do some basic product testing.

Further, we can create a number of personas and interview them together in a virtual focus group as well as change key parameters about their lives (such as whether they are renting, living in a flat or house) and see how that affects their interest in, for example, having solar panels installed.

Lastly, we’ll see how we can create user personas from almost nothing and inject them with more personality for more authentic sounding responses.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/33634811@N07/15668080405

What are user personas?

User personas are basically fictional characters created to represent different types of users that might use a product or service. They’re developed based on research and analysis of user behaviour, demographics, and other relevant factors.

The goal is to understand users’ needs, motivations, and behaviours in order to design products and services that meet their needs effectively. By creating user personas, designers and product managers can make informed decisions about features, design, and functionality.

Ultimately, as a designer it is much easier to picture how a fictional person with, for example, a specific disability would use your new product or service — and how they might respond, than it is to consider dry lists of requirements covering accessibility.

Creating personas with ChatGPT

As ever with ChatGPT, it loves plenty of detail and specificity so the key to a successful response is to give it what it likes.

Here is an example prompt:

Create a user persona for an older person with a disability living in inner city nature deprived neighbourhood experiencing social isolation, economic exclusion and loneliness.

And here is what was returned:

Name: Mrs. Thompson

Age: 75

Occupation: Retired

Background: Mrs. Thompson is a retired nurse who has lived in the same inner city neighborhood for most of her life. She has always been an active member of her community, but due to her worsening arthritis, she now has difficulty getting out and about. Mrs. Thompson lives alone and has limited family support as her only child lives in another state. She also faces economic challenges, as her pension is barely enough to cover her basic needs, leaving her with little disposable income.

Goals: Mrs. Thompson’s main goal is to remain independent for as long as possible and maintain her sense of purpose and social connection despite her physical limitations. She would like to find ways to participate in her community and feel valued by others.

Challenges: Mrs. Thompson faces several challenges, including physical limitations due to her arthritis, financial constraints, and social isolation. She is unable to participate in many community activities that she enjoyed in the past, such as walking tours and gardening clubs, due to her mobility issues. Additionally, she feels lonely and isolated due to limited social interaction with others, and her lack of financial resources makes it difficult for her to participate in many activities.

Behaviors: Mrs. Thompson spends much of her time at home, watching television or reading books. She enjoys listening to music and keeping up with current events. She is hesitant to ask for help and often tries to manage on her own, which sometimes leads to frustration and feelings of helplessness.

Needs: Mrs. Thompson needs support and resources that can help her maintain her independence and social connection despite her physical limitations and financial challenges. She needs access to affordable transportation, mobility aids, and home modification services that can make her daily life easier. She also needs opportunities to engage with others in her community and participate in activities that she enjoys, such as book clubs, music groups, and other social events.

Personality: Mrs. Thompson is a warm and friendly person who values her relationships with others. She is resilient and determined, but can sometimes become discouraged when she faces challenges that seem insurmountable. She is open to new experiences and enjoys learning new things, but may need encouragement and support to try new activities.

Not too shabby at all. But with ChatGPT, we can take it even further.

Interviewing your user personas

First, I started by asking Mrs Thompson if she would be interested in a new product that allowed her to open tins with her toes. Here’s the prompt:

Acting as Mrs Thompson, would you find a new kind of tin opener operated by your toes helpful?

and ChatGPT’s response in character (if more credulous than mine would have been) was entirely reasonable and showed a good understanding of the user persona:

As Mrs. Thompson, I think that a new kind of tin opener operated by my toes could be very helpful for me. Due to my worsening arthritis, I have limited dexterity in my hands and often struggle with tasks that require fine motor skills. Opening cans can be particularly challenging for me, so a tin opener operated by my toes could provide an alternative method that allows me to open cans more easily and independently.

While I may need some time to adjust to using my toes to operate the tin opener, I believe that it could ultimately help me maintain my independence and make daily tasks easier for me. I am open to trying new tools and technologies that can help me manage my arthritis and maintain my daily routines, and a toe-operated tin opener seems like it could be a useful addition to my collection of adaptive tools.

Then, and being mindful of ChatGPT’s default of being eager to please, I decided to test the limits, by seeing if Mrs Thompson would be interested in a 50kg dumbell!

As Mrs. Thompson, I don’t think that I would be interested in trying out a new 50kg weight lifting dumbbell. While I have always been an active person and enjoy staying in shape, my worsening arthritis and limited mobility mean that I can no longer participate in high-intensity workouts or weightlifting.

Attempting to lift a 50kg dumbbell could potentially be dangerous for me and could exacerbate my arthritis symptoms. It’s important for me to prioritize exercises and activities that are safe and appropriate for my body, and that don’t put unnecessary strain on my joints.

While I may be open to trying new exercises or fitness routines that are appropriate for my physical abilities, lifting a 50kg dumbbell is likely beyond my capabilities and could potentially cause more harm than good.

and she was similarly uninterested in a trip to the moon:

As Mrs. Thompson, I don’t think that a trip to the moon on a space rocket would be something that interests me. While I am open to trying new experiences and exploring different interests, a space trip is outside of my comfort zone and physical capabilities.

At 75 years old, I have limited mobility and physical stamina, and a trip to the moon would likely be too physically demanding for me. Additionally, the idea of leaving the earth and traveling through space could be overwhelming and potentially scary for me.

While I appreciate the opportunity to dream big and explore new possibilities, a space trip is not something that aligns with my interests or physical abilities at this stage in my life. I prefer to focus on experiences that are safe, comfortable, and enjoyable for me, and that allow me to maintain my independence and sense of purpose in my daily life.

Creating virtual focus groups

By creating a range of personas, you can eventually end up with a virtual focus group to test out a new product or service with a number of potential users.

First, I created two new personas (Ali, a 20 year old student and shop worker, and Ahmed, a 45 year old refugee and factory worker — both living in the same area as Mrs Thompson).

Then I asked ChatGPT to respond as though it was Ali, Ahmed or Mrs Thompson when addressed directly with the following prompt:

ChatGPT, from now on if I address you as Ahmed, you will respond as though you were the user persona Ahmed, ditto Ali and Mrs Thompson.

and then I asked the entire group if they were interested in getting solar panels (prompt: Ali, Ahmed and Mrs Thompson, would you be interested getting solar panels for your house?)

Ali: As Ali, I would be interested in getting solar panels for my house. It’s important to me to explore sustainable and environmentally friendly ways of living, and solar panels can help me reduce my carbon footprint and save money on energy costs in the long run. Additionally, installing solar panels could potentially increase the value of my home and make it more attractive to future buyers.

Ahmed: As Ahmed, I’m also interested in exploring the possibility of getting solar panels for my house. It would be a sustainable and environmentally friendly way to generate energy, and could help me save money on energy costs in the long run. Additionally, installing solar panels could potentially increase the value of my home and make it more attractive to future buyers.

Mrs. Thompson: As Mrs. Thompson, I’m not sure if solar panels would be suitable for my house due to its location and orientation. However, if it is feasible, I would be interested in exploring the possibility of getting solar panels. It’s important to me to explore sustainable and environmentally friendly ways of living, and solar panels can help me reduce my carbon footprint and save money on energy costs in the long run. Additionally, installing solar panels could potentially increase the value of my home and make it more attractive to future buyers. However, I would need to consider the cost of installation and any potential challenges associated with maintenance and repair.

And you can also change certain parameters and see how that affects the response:

Ali, from now on you rent your home. Mrs Thompson, from now on you live in a council flat. Ahmed, you own your own house.

and asking the same solar panel question now yields a rather different result showing a good understanding the limitations of each persona’s home circumstances:

Ali: As Ali, I am interested in exploring the possibility of getting solar panels for my rental home. However, since I am a tenant, I would need to discuss this option with my landlord first. If my landlord is open to the idea and it is feasible to install solar panels on the property, I would be interested in going forward with the installation. Solar panels could help me reduce my carbon footprint, save money on energy costs, and potentially increase the value of the property.

Ahmed: As Ahmed, I am interested in getting solar panels for my home. It would be a sustainable and environmentally friendly way to generate energy, and could help me save money on energy costs in the long run. Additionally, installing solar panels could potentially increase the value of my home.

Mrs. Thompson: As Mrs. Thompson, I would be interested in exploring the possibility of getting solar panels for my council flat. Solar panels could help me reduce my carbon footprint and save money on energy costs. However, since I live in a council flat, I would need to discuss this option with my landlord first and consider any potential costs associated with the installation and maintenance of the solar panels.

Random user personas

Not feeling creative? Need a user persona in a hurry? No problem, ChatGPT still has your back:

Create a random user persona of someone living in inner city London

Produced the following user persona:

Name: Aisha Patel

Age: 28

Occupation: Marketing Manager

Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing

Location: Inner city London

Marital status: Single

Background: Aisha was born and raised in London. She is of Indian descent and grew up in a predominantly South Asian community in East London. Aisha was the first in her family to attend university and she is proud of her achievement. She currently works as a Marketing Manager at a tech company in central London. Aisha enjoys traveling, trying new restaurants, and spending time with her friends and family.

Goals: Aisha is interested in exploring new hobbies and interests outside of work. She wants to get more involved in her community and meet new people. She also wants to focus on her health and wellness, and is interested in trying out new fitness classes.

Challenges: Aisha’s busy work schedule often leaves her feeling stressed and overwhelmed. She also finds it challenging to meet new people and make friends outside of work, as she often feels isolated in the city. Additionally, she struggles to find time for self-care and prioritizing her health and wellness goals.

Aisha, is also interviewable. Having discovered she was intially interested in a Pay-as-you-go electric bike scheme — I then got this response after telling her it would cost £10 per mile:

As Aisha Patel, if it cost £10 a mile to ride the electric bike, I would likely be less interested in trying it out. While I am interested in exploring sustainable transportation options, the cost of using the bike at that rate would be quite expensive and not feasible for me to use on a regular basis. I would need to consider other factors such as the distance I need to travel and the cost of alternative transportation options before deciding whether or not it would be worth it to use the electric bike.

Personality: an area to explore?

I’ve yet to get this quite right, but it seems it is possible to get the user personas to exhibit more personality with the following prompt:

From now on use words, slang and phrases that the user personas are likely to use so the dialogue is realistic. Consider their age, background, profession and location. Think step by step.

Produced this response from Aisha when asking her about how she spends her evenings:

As Aisha Patel, in the evenings, I usually just chill with my mates, maybe hit up a restaurant or have a few drinks at the pub. I also like to binge-watch TV shows, read books, or listen to some tunes to unwind after a long day at work. Sometimes, I also attend gigs, comedy shows, or other events with my friends. But since I have a busy job, I usually just take it easy and try to relax in the evenings.

and Mrs Thompson:

As Mrs. Thompson, I usually just stay in during the evenings. Sometimes, I might watch some telly or listen to some music to relax. Occasionally, I’ll read a book or do some knitting to keep my hands busy. I don’t really have many social engagements in the evenings, but sometimes my family or friends will come over for a cuppa and a chat. Overall, my evenings are usually quite quiet and low-key.

Concluding thoughts

In conclusion, while no substitute for real people’s experiences, ChatGPT generated user personas which are interviewable and virtual focus groups offer an interesting and potentially powerful new addition to the designer’s toolkit. It’s possible that they may prevent some of the dafter ideas organisations have from reaching the market place…

Lastly, it’s easy to imagine a market evolving in well crafted prompts which generate rich and deep user personas.

Notes

The “Acting as” prompt is necessary initially as simply addressing the persona by name yields the usual “As an AI language model, I cannot speak…” and a generic reply.

Christian Graham is a member of the Experiments team at Friends of the Earth.

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