The making of personas that work: Motive and methodology
An alternative take on the processes and methods of persona crafting via polarizations
Author: Nazlı Cangönül, Service Designer at ATÖLYE
Corporations, companies, NGOs, and international NGOs all seek answers to strategic questions from a human-centered perspective. The current leading method for finding such answers for the wicked problems these organizations are increasingly facing is Design Thinking. To quote IDEO, one of ATÖLYE’s sister companies in the kyu Collective, “Design Thinking is the creative method for problem-solving”. However, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for this methodology.
At ATÖLYE, we work closely with our clients to tailor our Design Thinking workshops to their needs, strategic vision, and organizational culture.
Over the course of 4 months, we worked closely with one of the leading telecommunications and digital infrastructure companies in Turkey to equip its Customer Experience teams with Design Thinking tools. These teams needed to learn and practice how to craft personas that is comprehensive enough to address their wide product offer. So, we created a custom methodology to help us navigate in such ambiguity. We then applied this method during our co-synthesis workshops with them and realized how big of an impact it had on their learning. We were able to provide them a more grounded -and at the same time elevated- thinking process and helped them stay focused on the key design challenges at hand.
Why intervene with the existing persona creation methods?
Crafting user personas is commonly used and also a commonly misused methodology in most areas of design.
In most design practices, personas are used to tell user stories in a meaningful way. They also help in deciphering the perceptions of a specific product/service/scope.
We need personas to structure our strategy around the key human patterns that indicate the need for developing different design solutions.
However, if you empathize “too much” with the users or do too few interviews, there is a greater risk of suffering from a “bias blind spot”. Additionally, if the scope is too wide, the ambiguity becomes too complex to navigate during synthesis — meaning not being able to see patterns among the vast sea of information. This adds to the risk of the tool being misused. For these reasons, crafting user personas is commonly used but also a commonly misused methodology in design.
A lot of different design thinkers has pointed at persona making in debating the risks of synthesis. There is a medium article by Microsoft Design on “how to kill your personas”, placing warnings about falling into “average user” traps. Also, Kim Flaherty from Nielsen Norman Group talks about an abstract notion of persona creation caused by a tendency to generalize synthesis from individual research samples. Flaherty emphasizes that persona making should not turn into an artful creation process or a surprise reveal but rather an engaged co-creation progress with the stakeholders involved.
How to get it right?
By reverse engineering the persona creation process, we realized that finding polarities in user behaviors and prioritizing these polarizations is the most crucial part of persona creation.
To develop our client’s personas, we dived deep into the methodology and mapped our persona making process; and by reverse engineering our own process, we mapped out our journey. Starting with finding extreme user behaviors to frame these extremes as polarizations, then prioritizing these polars carefully to figure out the most important extreme behavior which led to portraying personas. In choosing the most important extreme behaviors, we facilitated the prioritization conversations in teams and cross-checked with the related product’s strategic focus.
Here are the steps we followed:
Step 1 — Find the Polarizations
Polarization is about understanding the opposing extremes of the same user need or behavior.
During the synthesis, we focused on one individual’s answers at a time to find extreme behavior patterns. We also changed the way we normally synthesize with sticky notes in order to gain a holistic understanding of each situation. Each interviewee’s highlights were written on color-coded sticky notes and were categorized vertically. The first few notes on each column comprised profiling phrases identifying each individual’s demographics, favorite brands, frequently used apps, and digital products. They were followed by the same user’s answers regarding product use or preferred customer support channels.
After profiling all our highlights and putting them in writing on these individual “user columns”, we clustered these answers by affinity mapping. The clusters started showing some early insights into user profiles. By sticking to the original color codes, we were able to link the extreme behaviors to the perceptions of the users, discovering how background profiles could give insight into needs and expectations. For example, if some of the user behaviors were about tracking their phone plans (packages), we used it as a polar. The opposition of this polar would be the users who aren’t interested in tracking their usage.
Step 2 — Using WIP
Finding the Widest Important Polarity (WIP) among all polarizations is the main “water divider” when deciding on the main characteristics of personas.
After finding and mapping all extreme behaviors, here comes the question: “How might we combine all these extremes into a ‘familiar character’ for a solid persona? In more specific terms: “What is the one significant behavior type that clearly suggests the need for designing different experiences?” We called this the “Widest Important Polarity” (WIP for short) and it is the main polarized behavior that identifies your user's extremes on the specific product or service. Looking at our polarizations, we prioritized tracker vs. non-tracker (of phone plans) polarization as our WIP and used them as a base for drafting our persona profiles.
Step 3 — Mapping other polarizations
By mapping other polarizations to the initial WIPs, the persona characters starts to become more concrete, and distributing them backed by real cases is key to make them relatable.
After the WIP had been defined, we had a starting point to build the personas on. We then mapped the remaining polarizations under the main WIP categories, always going back to the raw data and real cases to double-check if that combination of needs and behaviors would make concrete and relatable persona.
This process was a reiteration of a charting activity in which our personas were defined and refined — sometimes by alternating their polarizations or creating alternative personas. After this gauging process, we landed on a final set of three personas that were both familiar to each other but also significantly different. Our personas were defined as non-tracker (has no interest in checking their usage), proactive tracker (tracks each activity and how it’s reflected on their bill), and reactive trackers (casual tracker just to make sure there will be no bill surprises at the end of each month). The final step was to add the background information from the profiles, turning the personas into relatable characters. Our three personas had tracking information as a starting point but we mapped the other polarizations from our research to complete their preferences and behavior types. On a side note, while you’re doing that, hearing someone say “I know someone exactly like this proactive tracker!”, is a strong sign that you are on the right track.
Throughout this process we’ve gathered a number of learnings:
- Extreme behaviors matter
From a service design perspective, polarizations matter more than the demographics of your persona. You might land on a persona with distinct characteristic traits, but their attitude and choices towards your product or its features will be the determining factors while making design decisions.
- Polarizations help build better personas
Turning polarizations into relatable personas is significantly important for clients to understand how to serve their users in differing ways. In the end, it is the client, not the designer, who needs to turn behaviors into fictional characters to constantly remember and advocate for users’ needs inside the company. In the corporate world, personas serve as a powerful argumentation tool.
- Personas reveal themselves in focused scope
Our mission was to map the entire customer base of the client’s company, but we realized that each product or service offered by the company represents a different solution for a different problem, bringing a distinct set of criteria for creating personas (resulting in a shift in the priority of the polarization or the WIPs).
- Persona making is a single tool among many
While doing research to humanize stories, and especially when you realize you’re not revealing polarized behaviors during synthesis, keep in mind that there are other frameworks that might fit your scope better, such as jobs-to-be-done, user scenarios, empathy maps, and more.
Thinking in terms of extreme user behaviors seemed to make the persona creation process more efficient in a specific product or a project scope. By mapping our persona creation journey, we were able to reconfigure the entire methodology and tailor it to our client’s needs, learning how to create even better personas in the process. We landed on personas that reflected our both users and our research insights. More importantly, the best part of the process was that were able to fully engage our clients and stakeholders in the process! This co-synthesis not only enabled a shared understanding of these personas and created internal buy-in within the stakeholders, but also activated the design team to come up with unique and innovative solutions that are triggered by real user needs.
What are your own processes and methods of persona crafting? How do they work for your projects? Do you mostly find personas to be guiding or misleading?
Let us know what you think, we would love to hear your thoughts!