To persona or not — this is the question?

Image by Aidan Meyer

Personas are a widely used tool among design practitioners for synthesising user research findings and giving a visual expression of a target customer. Usually they take form of a fictional person with a realistic name, face, and personality description to help foster empathy among the design team with the real users of the product or service in the making.

Personas are meant to serve as a decision-guiding tool — they are supposed to remind practitioners constantly throughout the design process about what the users would do, think, feel. Therefore, the profiling should be based on behavioural data gathered during user interviews and field observations.

However, time and again we see personas decorated with demographic details, habits unrelated to the service, and an obligatory smiley stock-photo — not that useful! Creating personas in the beginning of a design project has become a mantra that gets the team started but it’s rarely questioned for it’s purpose and benefit. As a friend put it , “Personas are just a box to tick so we can move on and never look back at them”.

To dissociate mentally from that buzzword concept of personas while still preserving their value to the project at hand — we started calling them behavioural personas.

“Demographics can cause assumptions, shortcuts in thinking, and subconscious stereotypes by team members.” — Indi Young

As a strategic design studio CG takes on diverse design briefs ranging from UX & service design to helping businesses to become more customer-centric. From our experience we found that different type of projects require different kind of “personas” depending on how and who is going to use them.

This blog post will give some insight into how we approach crafting behavioural personas and archetypes for the use-cases of service design — this blog focuses on behavioural personas for guiding service design

Why use behavioural personas

Designing behavioural personas for the purpose of service design requires distinguishing where and how the customer will interact throughout the service. We can create tools that visualise a high level interaction between the customer experience and business operations in an end to end process.

What are behavioural personas

Behavioural personas in service design are models of the different participants within a service — not only the direct users but also the passive participants and the staff members. In this case we kept the term ‘persona’ to signify the representation of a particular role within the service ecosystem and the specific behaviours they do to accomplish their objectives.

How we designed our behavioural personas

Behavioural personas already have a specific role in a service. Recently we worked with the NHSBT to redesign the future of blood donation centres. After visits to blood centres across the UK, speaking to staff and donors we defined key segments about who was currently using the service. Segmentations validates the similarities people experience within the service, these will allow us to identify patterns and any connections between segments.

To create behavioural personas we needed to build a much richer qualitative picture of the character. Develop a story around their needs, motivations and personality. We paid particular attention to physical behaviours and actions as we gained useful insight into how individuals were feeling based on these observations.

For example while visiting a donor centre we started speaking to someone who had never donated blood before. We asked how they were feeling and their reply was “I’m feeling fine”, although as we continued to talk we could observe their actions were telling a different story. They were sitting on the edge of their chair, playing with their hands and seemed very nervous about what was about to happen.

All this information not only relates to their needs, wants, motivations and expectations but also their backstory about why they started using the service, actions before the service, during and after. These behaviours all impact how we design for the future, whether we take into consideration how they get to the donor centre ie, walking, cycling. Behaviours during the service ie. walking around, fainting and finally how they exit and feel after the service ie. returning back to work, going home or cooking food.

It’s important to identify every key character interacting in the service. As described above we looked at the donors but also we needed to incorporate the nurses and staff working at the donation centres as they play a key role in the service we’re designing for. .

Another type of behavioural persona we observed is the people accompanying donors. Even though they are a passive participant in the service, their needs and behaviours should also be considered in a comprehensive service blueprint.

An example of how we presented our behavioural personas in the NHSBT

Our key learning about behavioural personas

Personas shouldn’t be taken lightly. They are a key decision-guiding tool and resource which should be used throughout the whole design process, allowing people to be reminded who we are designing for. Recognising who the customer will help to understand the user’s problems, barriers and expectations.

On a final note, these are just our learnings and methods that we are continuously updating from each project. These personas should be tailored to each project at hand, as we will show in our next blog which looks at behavioural archetypes in relation to customer-centric strategy. We will continue to update and learn new approaches to represent the human using and behind the service.