Relativity, MC Esher

Personas require Imagination

I recently taught a workshop on UX Design, describing the fundamentals of wireframes and their significance in the creative process. Wireframes have always brought me to a deep sense of gratification because they mark the first time your team actually sees the product come together. Visions can be sung for the moment, assuming the poet is inspired; a design blueprint, however, almost begs for scrutiny. The concept is no longer simply a thought — it has been drawn into reality.

Good UX design starts with a deep understanding of not only technology, but also people. Everyone interprets the world differently, which is what attracted me to personas — they’re an easy way to imagine yourself as the customer.

Personas fall into a soft science of analyzing social behavior which can be somewhat disconcerting. People, myself included, don’t like to be compartmentalized into a box. I’m actively changing, complex, and have a very different perspective than I had five years ago.

Reading a few articles on Medium led me to find that other UX designers had unearthed similar qualms with personas. Mike Brand for one; he’s provided a cogent summary on the common drawbacks of personas when presenting them to a team. Don’t be surprised if everyone wants something different. In some ways, it kind of makes sense — it’s natural to want to integrate part of our own unique stories into the personas we create. Personas, however, should be different from you and each other; they are a collection of people who use your product.

I like re-imagining personas as fictional characters in a book. Writers use the same technique, drawing on personal experiences to create endearing fictional characters. However, it can be difficult to meet someone who you’ve never met. This process requires a a willingness to explore outside of oneself.

Paul Farino does a good job of identifying the difference between a customer profile and a persona. Customers are more than simple facts and figures; female, dark hair, 5'5, middle income… it’s valuable data for understanding a user’s context as well as their boundaries. However, the implications of the implications is where true insight can be drawn. This, more than anything, requires a healthy dose of imagination; blended with rational thinking gives way to a commonplace pass time — predicting and forecasting events.

In comparison to the economy or weather though, predicting the actions of people is less of a numbers game and more of a feelings game. I love to play the game: how would this person react if <insert radical scenario>? It’s an exercise in how well you can anticipate your customer’s needs and requires a deep understanding of their values to gauge accurately.

In many ways, developing personas is an exercise in empathetic observation: looking at the world through the lens of others. Empathy is a natural human emotion, but it’s hard to connect with a person whom you have never met before. It’s like trying to create a memory without ever having experienced it.

This is where I think artists, and people of insight, play such a significant role in the process of developing personas. Empathy plays a vital role in the world of art. In order to evoke emotion from their audience, artists ask themselves some very hard, introspective questions — “How do you paint kindness?” Creating an emotion from scratch requires recognizing it within ourselves to understand its composition. How many of us can truly discern the difference between happy vs. cordial? Or hunger vs. greed?

Sifting through the subtle shades of grey in emotion can reveal cloaks that many of us wear to mask our true motivations. You may have experienced this while product testing with customers — often, users will provide positive encouragement as feedback rather than contribute their honest opinion. It’s understandable; it can be hard to be insightful about oneself when put on the spot. Those cloaks, however, keep a very real distance between your customer and the product. It’s important for you, and your product research team, to become experts in people watching.

There is a spectrum of choices in this existence and each of us finds our own boundaries to place along the gradient. Story tellers must have the courage and tenacity to examine parts of the spectrum that they may have intentionally decided not to take part in. How else will we discover that which has not yet been seen?

Priya Dandawate

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