Product Managers Have A “Persona” Problem
User Personas are fictional snapshots of characters that represent and generalize a large cluster of target users who might be using the product that you are designing in a specific way.
Personas are awesome. I love “discovering” personas. They can be extremely beneficial if designed and implemented correctly. They can also be an excellent tool of communication for designers to describe design decisions in terms of a user experience outcome for a specific persona.
But there’s one major problem with personas nobody ever talks about.
Personas can reinforce bias and stereotypes.
How are Personas created?
This is the fundamental issue with Personas. Personas are not created, they are “discovered”. They are discovered by collecting and analyzing data to determine who the user is and what his or her needs are. In reality, personas are based on the marketing and product teams’ whims and educated guesses. How often have you been on a team that “creates” Personas? It occurs far more frequently than most people realize.
Unfortunately, this practice encourages a superficial understanding of human behavior, which can lead to biased stereotypes based on religion, region, gender, ethnicity, age, and economic status. A stereotype is defined by social psychologists as a “fixed, over-generalized belief about a group or class of people.” We all have these subconscious biases. It’s human nature — our brains are wired to categorize and form stereotypes. It is a technique used by humans to simplify the social world and reduce the cognitive load on the brain, particularly when meeting new people. Stereotypes can serve people well sometimes, but I also might reinforce negative and unintended biases.
The UX team should be aware of these pitfalls and avoid using assumptions for their Personas.
“If we’re just aware that it (stereotype) exists, it gives us a chance to do something, to be vigilant to not let our unintended biases — our implicit biases — take over our behavior, which can happen unintentionally” — Galt Greenwald, Professor of Psychology at University of Washington.