Better Personas: One Simple Change to Help Mitigate Bias

There is no shortage of articles that tell you how to — or how not to create personas for User eXperience. This is not another one of those. There’s also no shortage of articles on how to mitigate bias in your data.

Yet, I bet, most if not all of us have been doing something that is likely influencing our data and we just don’t realize it. I know I have been.

Notice Anything about most of these?

According to Usability.gov:

The purpose of personas is to create reliable and realistic representations of your key audience segments for reference.

Now, at Headspring we rarely if ever use fully developed personas. Due to the rapid nature that is ‘agile’ in enterprise software development it just isn’t something feasible. That said, whenever we have the opportunity we develop and utilize proto-personas.

For those of you unfamiliar, proto-personas are very similar to traditional personas just without the extensive background research that goes into them. We will typically do a handful of interviews with key stakeholders, and others who have some insight about our end users (often one in the same in enterprise software).

Despite this difference, the goal is the same, create reliable and realistic representations of our users.

These help us achieve a few key things for the project we cannot get any other way.

  1. It gives stakeholders, team leads, developers and the UX team members a common language when discussing features or functionality.
  2. Perhaps more importantly, it helps all parties empathize with the users as human beings, and not some sort of ‘abstract user’. This empathy CANNOT be understated.

In my years of doing UX, I have never seen someone not take an extra moment to think on a decision when asked how it will effect a particular persona.

“How will this effect the user?” — Almost instantaneous answer.

“How will this effect ‘Bryan’ (our persona).” — Always, a moment of hesitation.

The answer very well may be the same. We want that moment. Those moments, like ‘the little things’ add up.

Nothing New but worth repeating

For the sake of conversation, lets just highlight what makes personas effective, along with a few ‘don’t do these’

Effective personas:

  • Represent a major user group for the website or app
  • Express and focus on the major needs and expectations
  • Give a clear picture of the user’s goals
  • Aid in uncovering universal features and functionality
  • Describe real people with backgrounds, goals, and values

Things to avoid when creating personas:

  • Unclear/ Non-existent user goals
  • Made up or ‘silly names’ i.e. John Snow, Wilma Webuser, Rick Sanchez.
  • Too much/ irrelevant information i.e. Eats tacos on Tuesdays (unless it’s a food ordering application.)
  • lastly…

… I Cannot Stress This enough…

What does ANY of this even mean?

Our jobs, by definition are to improve User Experience. Can ANYONE tell me what “50% Using software” means? How about “50% Quiet” or “80% Software”? The bottom right example of Motivations could be forgiven but, without labels it’s a stretch at best. It leaves a lot to the interpretation, and these aren’t supposed to be puzzles that challenge us. They are tools.

These are prime examples of how not to do our jobs.

All of that aside. Let’s get to what I promised shall we?

Mitigating Bias in Personas

Random Internet People thanks to Pexels.

Recognize anyone? Whether or not you do, according to The Royal Society we judge within milliseconds if someone is like us and belongs to our “in-group” or not. We tend to favor people we consider among our “in-group” and that in-turn effects our decisions without us realizing it.

One of the primary reasons we create personas is to help the team avoid unnecessary or unconscious bias.

According to dictionary.com, bias is defined as:

a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned

This preconceived or unreasoned judgement can no doubt have an influence on our team. Biases are independent of gender, ethnicity, and race. We all have biases. Some we are aware of and can mitigate ourselves while others are unconscious, and those are just our own.

What if I told you there’s an easy, already proven method that has been working for decades from another field?

It’s been under our nose this whole time.

Once upon a time, in my earlier days I was a ‘sequential artist’. I told stories with pictures… Okay, I drew comics, pamphlets etc, for the U.S. Navy. I originally went back to school to study sequential art. Which is where I discovered and fell in love with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics — The Invisible Art. To this day, one of the most influential books on how I do my job.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud breaks down abstracting images or cartooning. For our purposes we’re focusing on faces.

By stripping down an image to it’s essential “meaning” an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.” — Scott McCloud

Again, our goal with personas or proto-personas is to create realistic representations of our users to enable stakeholders, designers, developers, and everyone in the process empathize with the human beings that will eventually be in-front of our screens.

We can mitigate a lot of potential bias by abstracting or cartooning our personas. By stripping down the user photo to it’s ‘essential meaning’.

The more we abstract a face, the more universal it becomes. The more universal it becomes, the more we are able to amplify the true meaning of our personas.

Excerpt from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” — July 1, 1995

With each progressive step of abstraction we can make our persona more inclusive and dramatically cut down the potential for a team member to attach something undesired to one of our personas.

For example:

Like all other skills, if you don’t draw often, you lose it. :)

Notice that I haven’t taken us ALL the way down to the ‘power outlet’ face from Scott McCloud’s example representing (nearly) all people? Remember, a personas is still supposed to represent a group of users for the team to empathize with.

User McUserface

This works if you are building user stories like “As a user I want to ‘X’ so that I can ‘Y’.”

I won’t go into why user stories like this.. well, aren’t stories at all. That’s for another time.

This, swings us too far in the opposite direction of being too general.

Instead of being too specific, smiley here is too vague, he/she is just a ‘user’ with no real emotional connection to be made.

In cartooning this is done so that more audience members can empathize and relate to the character. It’s precisely why you see so many anthropomorphized mice. It’s easy for everyone to relate to the mouse with all the inner characteristics of a human, without the visual ‘baggage’ we unconsciously attach that comes with race, attractiveness, and even gender.

Putting it all together

So how does this all look when we bring it together with our other information?

Nobody bedazzles a wrench — It’s a tool for a job.

We are still meeting our primary objective of a fictional, yet realistic description of a typical or target user. We are still representing a person for our team to empathize with.

What we have done however is take out the one part of our persona that could easily lead to some unnecessary or unconscious bias and by doing so we have reached the essential meaning of our personas.