During a recent project, a colleague and I created a persona who was looking for car insurance. We named our persona Martin Hansen. He was 29 years old, lived in a small town outside of Oslo and worked as an engineer on an industrial plant. His partner was seven months pregnant, so they needed to get a bigger car to accommodate the needs of a small family. On a whim, we decided to make him half Bangladeshi and half Norwegian, like me. It really was quite easy.
But I found myself thinking: “That’s strange”.
And even after showing the persona to colleagues for feedback, and refining it further before sharing it with the customer, that feeling persisted. Even though Martin represented our user group perfectly well, he just seemed odd somehow. And I think that’s because most times when I set up this kind of example user, I make them just like the people in the header photo. They’re probably caucasian, doing pretty well in life, and I bet they love skiing and brown goat cheese (that’s something Norwegians eat, look it up). And I’m not the only one doing this.
Working as a designer in Norway, you see a lot of personas and example users that fit this mould. Now, I’m not saying that these personas aren’t realistic, or that how they appear makes a huge difference in how we design our products and services. The simple fact is that they do not accurately reflect the society we live in, nor the people who will use the products that we make. I’m not used to seeing people of colour or people with different social backgrounds, ethnicities and sexualities represented in my (or any) work, and that doesn’t seem right.
When we design digital products, we try to make them for everyone, and even though choosing a “typical” Norwegian persona is easy and probably doesn’t hurt our end product, I believe that it can hurt our perception of who we’re designing for. It can hurt our expectations of what Norwegian (or any) society looks like. Not by a lot, but little by little. Who we choose to represent in our work matters, as does the way that we represent them.
Representation is an important topic to me, particularly representation in the media. When I was growing up, my favourite Disney films were Aladdin, The Jungle Book and The Lion King. I hadn’t given it much thought until recently, when it struck me that the former two were the only Disney movies in which I, a brown kid in Bergen, Norway, could identify with heroes who looked like me. I probably wouldn’t grow up to be a prince on a flying carpet, or befriend a bear and a panther, but the heroes of those movies were still people who looked like me, my family and my friends. (The third was obviously The Lion King, and I think every kid aspires to be a lion when they grow up.)
My point is, for someone to believe they can become something, they need to see someone else like them step into that role before them. Whether it’s intentional or not, the way people are depicted in art, politics and in everyday life tells us what we can and can’t be. There are obviously more important arenas for representation than my slides during presentation of a website project — arenas like politics, the workplace and the arts — but every little bit helps. Now I’ve started putting people of all shapes and colours into my designs. A muslim girl having her user journey mapped, a Polish immigrant having a customer experience, a gay couple who want to buy a car or book a flight to Paris. And of course, what they look like or what kind of lives they lead isn’t the point. I don’t want to shine a light on their differences, I want to emphasise their normalcy by not commenting on it at all.
A person’s gender, religion or ethnicity doesn’t affect how they use my website to browse for insurance. To be cynical about it, everyone is a user or potential customer. Beyond the moral imperative to make our products and services available to anyone, regardless of who they are, I believe it makes sense from a business point of view as well; the more people that can use your product, the greater the potential revenue of your company. Well designed products don’t discriminate; they help you reach your goals regardless of who you are.
By including people both different and similar to me in my projects, I hope that I might make both myself and the people who encounter my work a little more comfortable with seeing our society for what it truly is: a multicultural and diverse mass of humanity, made up of people who are both incredibly similar to us and uniquely different, all of whom we can help by doing a good job. Looking at western society from the outside — at our art and our culture, at our leaders and our celebrities — one could easily guess that most of us were caucasian males, happily leading profitable businesses and starring in prestigious movies. By shining a light on the people who are not normally put forth as examples of who we are, I hope that we can normalise a multicultural and diverse society. Representation can’t just happen at the very top; in fact, for it to truly permeate our culture it has to happen at every level of society, right down to something as banal as a design persona.
It isn’t much, but it feels like a small step in the right direction, and seeing the people that I see on the street every day reflected in the the stuff I make is starting to feel less strange and more natural every day.
So anyways, here’s Martin. He needs insurance for his car.