Personas are dying.

A case for user roles.

Armed with a Field Notes notebook, a few pencils and pens, post-its, and a growing list of software, I will tackle thesis next semester with gusto.

But more importantly, what’s the process for actual UX thought going to be?

Am I going to wing it? Make some sick hex code gradient shadows and call it good? Pop an X-axis on a pie chart, and Dribbble shot that sucker?

Not this guy. 👍

I’m going to make user flows. I’m going to interview people. I’m going to conduct heuristic analyses and usability tests.

I’m also going to be defining user roles and making user role maps, and I wanted to talk to you about what those are. (And maybe get some feedback? Teach me things that I don’t know, and fill gaps in my knowledge!)

User Roles > UX Personas

I recently attended a talk by John McRee (@johnmcree) about User Roles. They’re not commonplace and searching for them online usually leads you to a few old examples with no context.

If you have a background in Human-Computer Interaction, you may be aware of Activity Theory.

Activity Theory is a way of thinking about the humans as actors, rather than users, who utilize systems for different actions or activities. It’s super complicated and I hardly understand it, but you can read about that in the book Acting with Technology.

User Roles are kind of like bite-sized Activity Theory.

Essentially, User Roles allow you to think of the users in different states, rather than as a consumer. Users switch between various roles, or states, as they navigate a system.

This is what your persona really looks like.

What’s wrong with personas?

Personas, especially proto-personas, over time have started to mean less and less and become filled with more and more fluff. Does a user’s income make a considerable difference in most product design decisions? No, not really.

Personas are often not research driven, but pretend to be the source of truth for all user experience questions.

User Roles let you cut out the extra junk that personas shove down your gullet. 🗑

How to user role:

First, you define a set of actors (loose personas), then you define a set of roles these actors can play.

For instance, someone who works at Papa Johns 🍕🙌 may be a pizza cook, a delivery driver, and a kitchen cleaner. They have one job with multiple roles, and they cross between these roles as the go about their job.

In the same vein, someone who is using a bank application assumes multiple roles. As the user first signs up, they may be a “worrier” when they check their balance they may be a “penny pincher,” and when they deposit a check, they may be a “high roller.” (I entirely made these up, so they might mean nothing.)

That one person isn’t the only one who will worry, but they may not always fear at the same times. User roles let you get to the bottom line while being exceptionally empathetic.

Source: John McRee

A User Role Map is the visual format of these actors changing roles as they move through a system. They show at what points actors cross over into various roles throughout an experience.

Are you designing for the “worrier” in sign up? Are you making them feel secure? What about the “impatient one,” or the “tech expert”?

So, next time you start a project, consider making some User Role Maps first. I definitely will! And let me know if you learn anything about this you could send my way, I definitely am not an expert yet.

Here’s the original user roles presentation I saw:

So yeah, I’m graduating soon. You can check out my portfolio at and see if you think I’m worth hiring. And if you think I am, email me at sometime.

Thanks for reading. Wish me luck.