The recent publication of our After Dark report wrapped up our months long human centered design research with UN Women, which was premised on understanding the experiences of women travelling and using public transportation in the evening time. To better understand these women’s needs, concerns, attitudes and behaviours, we created a set of personas based on insights we gathered across the three cities we surveyed, as well as the anecdotes of women working blue collar, night-shift jobs.
Despite their many shared demographic characteristics, from early on in the field research it was clear that these women had varying needs, habits, challenges — and in particular distinct views on what safety meant for them. This realisation prompted us to begin sketching a few personas, from which the four that were described in our research emerged. We took some time to reflect on our experience developing these personas for the After Dark research, as well as what we learnt in the process of doing so.
The Benefits of Personas in Service Design
Within the context of service design, a persona is a fictional character normally used to represent a type of user that utilises a service or product. Personas are inspired by real individuals, and are designed based on behavioural themes and patterns observed among research respondents. In terms of human centered design, persona creation is a principle that is regularly applied to encourage designers to prioritise the needs of the end users in their design process.
While personas are often inspired by sample groups that do not reflect an entire population, they are effective communication archetypes that can foster empathy, for instance through the use of essential identifiers about who they these personas are, in addition to how and why they behave the way they do. Moreover, personas are able to reveal the differences between demographic and psychographic characteristics among respondents.
Women who travel at night do not belong to a uniform category, and this was reflected among our research respondents who described how different encounters and beliefs shaped their perceptions of safety. Therefore, we decided to develop a set of personas as a tool to help us make sense of these differences; to design practical and user-centered interventions; and to engage with diverse stakeholders on related issues.
Developing the After Dark Personas
Though we started with mental sketches of the After Dark personas during the field observations, the personas really began shaping up after we began reviewing our notes from the field and analysing recorded interviews. In this initial step, we asked ourselves the question: How might we better understand and communicate the different needs and underlying beliefs of the respondents? We found that women’s safety perceptions are closely related to how familiar they are with the various types of public transportation and the environments in which they operate. Therefore, factors such as how often one uses public transportation and what support systems they have in place also define their experience.
Throughout our research, we met with 37 women respondents across Medan, Semarang and Surabaya. We designed a simple graph with travel frequency on one axis and support on the other to plot and see whether we could identify any clusters among the respondents. We understood travel frequency to be how often a respondent travels at night using public transportation and support to be any kind of assistance women receive during their journey, such as getting picked up by a family member at a transit point, employee provided transportation benefits, among others.
At first, we noticed six clusters on the graph, each of which was then more closely analysed. One of the things that stood out to us during this mapping exercise was that there were a few respondents whose profiles did not match the target group based on our research goals. For instance, some of them used their own personal vehicles for commuting and others received transportation benefits from their employers. These profiles were therefore excluded.
Iterating and Bringing the Personas to Life
To better understand the needs of each persona, we first needed to find out why they make certain decisions and learn more about their experiences and perceptions while travelling and using public transportation during evening time. In other words, we also needed to examine the contexts that influence these women’s behaviours. Therefore, we decided to create a set of personas that were engaging and relatable. This enabled our researchers to step in these women’s shoes and take a look at what they experience from their unique perspectives, instead of simply focusing on a list of goals and behaviours.
First, we crafted narratives based on our understanding of their contexts, challenges and needs. In this step, we clustered and synthesized the findings for each of the personas, according to their traits, safety perceptions and public transportation preferences. We noticed that there were commonalities and shared patterns among the clusters in terms of access to transportation, work motivation, exposure to the city, social networks, experience dealing with instances of crime and violence, level of confidence and independence. These attributes then served as our guide on how to craft the profiles and narratives for each persona, including naming them.
Six personas eventually emerged: The Overprepared Strategist (who spends a lot of time coming up with defence strategies); The Anxious Newcomer (who recently migrated to the city); The Moonlighter (who juggles multiple jobs to stay afloat); The Female Warrior (who puts her work above her own safety); The Conforming to Norms (who relies on established norms to move around); and The Happy-Go-Lucky (who enjoys socialising and travelling to meet up with those in her social network despite the urban ills).
And another iteration…
After coming up with these six personas, we revisited our research objectives to see how well the personas aligned. We were reminded that our ideal respondents should be from a lower socio-economic background and should generally be women who lack the means to afford personal or private vehicles. Thus we realised that two of the six personas — The Conforming to Norms and The Happy-Go-Lucky — were not the best fit. For instance, one of the foremost characteristics that helped to define The Happy-Go-Lucky persona was the ease of accessing private vehicles.
Next up was the task of visualising the personas. We decided to go with hand sketches, instead of relying on digitally-generated sketches. This is because we wanted to communicate the idea that the personas are based on our actual impressions of real women we met. Instead of just using facial avatars, we chose to illustrate the personas using full body sketches along with images of items that they normally bring while travelling. This helped to vividly depict the personas clothing choices, which was particularly important because the differences reflect not only their personality traits, but shed some light on their safety strategies.
While observing the respondents’ experiences, we noticed that their thoughts, pain points, emotions and underlying beliefs also vary according to the travel times and locations where they transit. So, we also sketched out each persona’s journey from the first mile to the last.
Making Use of the Personas
The personas were mainly used as communication archetypes to guide us during the ideation process. In particular, they helped us to focus on how our design and intervention ideas might suit the needs of women travelling during evening time. In this way, the personas encouraged us to concentrate on creating designs that are practical, strategic, user-centered and have the potential for greater impact. For example, the idea for the Anak Rantau or Newcomer Know Your City mobile app was inspired by our respondents who just moved to a big city and have some anxiety when it comes to navigating the new surroundings (The Anxious Newcomer persona).
During the After Dark co-design workshop, the personas were also useful. The co-design workshop was used as a method to generate ideas and gather insights from diverse participants to create an environment that promotes safer transit for women using public transportation at night. While it was beneficial to have diverse stakeholders from Medan, Jakarta, Semarang and Surabaya participating in the workshop, the fact that they were from different cities, sectors and backgrounds presented a challenge. The personas came in handy by making sure all the participants were on the same page, which helped them to empathise with the women who travel after dusk.
Our Lessons Learned
Coming up with the four personas that we described in our report was not simple. We went back and forth looking at our findings from the field, revisiting our research objectives, and evaluating the personas. This iterative process helped us to refine each persona, by spotting differences in needs, behaviours, and beliefs, as well as figuring out whether the personas aligned with our broader research objectives. Our notes from the field were helpful, such as details about the respondents’ demographic profiles, quotes and emotions. Although the personas were not cookie cutter fits of the respondents, our research notes helped to jog our memories of the actual women we met in the field. This stimulated our creative impulses to come up with more accurate representations.
But how do we know if the personas actually served their purpose? To answer this question, we introduced the personas to a larger audience, especially among individuals who were not involved in the After Dark research fieldwork. We were interested in knowing whether our personas made sense; whether other women could relate to their stories; and whether the personas succeeded at communicating the different personality traits, needs, and underlying beliefs of women who travel and use public transportation in the evening time. This step was essential for the iteration process, as the feedback we gathered helped with refining the personas.
Visualising the personas with adding accompanying narratives helped to make an emotional connection with stakeholders and potential partners who are key to addressing some of the related challenges described. The visualisations themselves make it easier to communicate the human element of each persona, without revealing the actual identity of the women involved in the study. Furthermore, they can also be easily shared across diverse audiences to inspire ideas for potential interventions.
Beyond the Research Report
Our expectation is that these personas will continue to foster empathy, and encourage dialogue with broader stakeholders who may not directly interact with women who travel after dark using public transportation yet are responsible for formulating policies and solutions that could affect them. These personas helped us to better understand the women who travel after dark using public transportation in order to come up with solutions that are beneficial for them. In the coming months, our team will revisit Medan, Semarang and Surabaya to conduct a series of workshops to share the research findings and to co-design prototypes with related stakeholders based on insights from the research. At that point in time, we will again reach for these After Dark personas to stimulate the discussion. Going forward, we believe our personas will add useful insights relating to discourses on women’s safety in public spaces. Can you relate to any of these personas? How might they help nudge the discussions in your city? Let us know!
Pulse Lab Jakarta are grateful for the generous support from the Government of Australia.