What Samuel L. Jackson Taught Me About Personas

Peter Urfer
Jun 11, 2019 · 5 min read

This is the mothaf*#@$n deal with mothaf*#@$n personas

Photo: Peter Yang, The New York Times / Illustration: Peter Urfer

Samuel Leroy Jackson is one of the highest grossing actors to date. With over 180 acting credits, you most likely have seen him in films like “Pulp Fiction,” “Unbreakable” or “Snakes on a Plane.” His presence often leaves the audience with a deep impression of his onscreen character.

What you might not know is to prepare himself for those roles, he creates in-depth character biographies. He builds a detailed study containing qualities that are not defined in the source material but nonetheless are part of the story that makes the character become a whole person. He answers questions like:
- What kind of food does he eat?
- How educated is he?
- How many brothers and sisters does he have?
- Is the current action influenced by one of the siblings?
- What gives him his confidence?
- Has he been to jail?
- Where does he want to go after this?
- … and many more.

Now, Samuel L. Jackson does not need to explain his biographies, in fact, during most productions, he doesn’t even share his insight with the directors. But the story he creates is an integral part of how he can identify with the character and portray it more plausible. And for us designers, his approach supplies inspiration to develop personas for our projects.

A persona is a whole person

Your persona should be a living character. This goes beyond educational background, career choices, hobbies, etc. Find hints on the environment the person grew up with. Gain an understanding of the emotional state and overall attention span your audience has. As Samuel L. Jackson summarizes it:

Create a human being […] that has a full life.

This helps you to assess your persona’s motivation. And all that detail is full of clues to what your user needs.

Personas have things on their minds

Users are never 100% absorbed by a product. Many internal and external factors impact how a person reacts at a given moment. Even if everyone in the world would think alike, we would still get a wide variety of approaches to the same task as each person will be dealing with their own set of influences. While we’re never able to collect data on what exactly goes on within someone’s mind, Samuel L. Jackson even notes if the character thinks:

“I need to get out of here. I’m sick of being here.” People need to see that […]

Therefore, dabble as a fiction writer. Draw from the data gathered and create a comprehensive biography of the persona. You might just identify possible disturbances your product will be competing with.

Personas are on the move

Everyone comes from somewhere and is going somewhere — physically and mentally. Life doesn’t stop after users have completed the problem your product solves. It is part of their journey, but also just one step in their life. Samuel L. Jackson knows:

Everything is a series of goals.

Keep an open mind on the user’s journey beyond your product. What made them arrive here? What do they want to achieve next? Is there anything you can assist them with on their next step?

Do not judge your persona

Judgment clouds your ability to empathize with your persona. Remember, you are creating a product for your users, and it’s an advantage if you don’t think of your users as being idiots. If your persona seems peculiar to you, go with Samuel L. Jackson’s acceptance:

That’s just what they do. That’s how they operate in the world. Once you figure out the rules […], you build […] around that.

If you find that adding a picture to the document might lead your peers to make quick judgments, do not add any. Let everyone come up with their own visual references. They might imagine a person they can relate to or pick someone they feel inspired to please. They might even think, “Wow, this persona is totally like my grandma!” And let them have it, as your persona just got more real; they will be able to draw in realistic insights inspired by their grandmother.

You might even go as far as removing demographic data (age, gender, ethnicity,…) from your persona unless you are specifically targeting one of these attributes. Nowadays, we human beings are more liberated in our choices, turning these attributes obsolete and into a source of assumptions rather than valid insights.

A persona is not set in stone

Now, here’s where we have an advantage over Samuel L. Jackson. His character biographies are completed once the motion picture is done. When he sees the movie, he might wish he could’ve tested different character traits, but his initial take is forever pressed on film.

But our persona can and will change over time. As you build your product and go through more iterations, your user data shifts. While observing users manipulate your product in real time, you will discover new attributes that could shape future releases.

Do update your personas. Include this new insight, or even create a new set of personas. Stakeholders might be confused as to why the persona is different, but you will have solid data to back-up any change.

Channel your persona, mothaf*#@$a

Though Samuel L. Jackson is in a different professional field (in fact, a different league altogether), his approach to creating a character study —
and to entertain the viewers in the most believable way — , is a great inspiration for creating personas on your next project. Therefore, channel the Samuel L. Jackson within you and fuse your data, experience, and creativity to produce useful in-depth personas.

Thank you for exploring personas together with Samuel L. Jackson and me. Below a list of resources and further reading, including some inspiration to watch more Samuel L. Jackson movies. If you would like to add anything to this article, please do so in the comments.

Masterclass — Samuel L Jackson Teaches Acting, http://www.masterclass.com/slj

Megan Conner, The Guardian (2015) — Interview Samuel L Jackson: ‘I create characters — it keeps me from being me all day’

Alan Cooper, Cooper.com (2008) — The origin of personas

Alan Klement (2018) — Yes, Personas Focus on Demographics (And How to Fix That)

Mattia Compagnucci (2018) — Interaction personas: why, what, and how

IMDb — Samuel L Jackson

Carson Widynowski — Ranking the 50 Samuel L. Jackson characters I’ve watched

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