Personas are real people with changing needs

Iterative man

As IBM Designers, we are well versed in the vernacular of IBM Design Thinking. We speak the language of hills, maps, loops, and personas. This story explores the last term in that list: personas. As a designer, I continually advocate the importance of a strong persona. And, I believe, these personas need to be reevaluated and evolve throughout design thinking to continue to portray the real people we are designing for.

A simple web search will yield the following:

persona (Latin) — mask, character played by an actor.

The word reflects the world of theater, and how those who take the stage become someone else. And, arguably and often controversially, those who do so the best are the ones who embrace not just the character’s role but also their emotions and inner thoughts — a method actor. There is a shared aspect to the method acting (or Stanislavski system) and the development of personas. Both are an application of evolution.

In the practice of IBM Design Thinking, there are several methods used to develop personas. Designers conduct ethnographic research, evaluate market research, gain strategic insights, conduct interviews and witness users in action. We observe. We ask. All is done in the pursuit of building empathy, defining and aligning a shared focus, forming and sharing consensus, informing and applying decision making and measuring effectiveness.

In fact, there is documentation prepared showcasing these IBM efforts. Two examples being the Commerce Personas and Design Personas.

But, too often I’ve witnessed personas value become weakened. Either by being forgotten during the design process or being the North star without further evolution. The latter is an area of opportunity. As Shlomo Goltz, Interaction Designer and User Researcher at Hearsay Social, notes,

Personas [shouldn’t be] just created and then forgotten — they [are] living, breathing characters that [permeate] all that we [do].

In the language of IBM Design Thinking, IBM designers are empowered to use the loop in their development of their personas.

In a two-day client-facing workshop, a design team and I examined our client’s marketing data as well as our own internal research to formulate four personas to represent their users in a specific scenario.

Isabel — our contemporary music listener
Amy — our country music listener
Sam — our news talk listener
James — our urban listener

During persona validation, the fourth activity, the group assigned to Amy included the client’s President of Insights, Research and Data Analytics. And they were having substantial concern assessing the persona. Mid-way through the activity, they bluntly expressed, “Amy is not a client of ours. Nor is she someone we’d market to.” As part of the validation activity, we modified the persona to guide discussion for the remainder of the day. It was clear the design team would need to evolve the persona following the workshop in collaboration with the client, reviewing new data research and further investigation with real users.

Through a collaborative effort, the team resolved the issues with the persona, as well as fine-tuned details of the other three personas. By day two of the workshop, we had personas which more accurately captured the archetypal users of their platform. And, following the workshop, we continued to evolve the users as we explored a niche use case for their platform — the connected car.

As you construct your personas in the future, I encourage you to employ the loop. Observe. Reflect. Make. While often overlooked and never revisited, the development of your personas should be ongoing through design thinking. Continue to iterate and evolve your personas. Identifying key fluctuations can impact your design and agile development. Focusing your persona at the forefront of your efforts is key, as is the maintenance of your persona as your design efforts continue. The importance of IBM Design Thinking is to keep real people present in design. And real people change over time, as should your personas.

Nathan Lavertue is the Global Experience Design Director at IBM based in New York, NY, USA. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.