The persona method has developed from being a method for IT system development to being used in many other contexts, including development of products, marketing, planning of communication, and service design. Despite the fact that the method has existed since the late 1990s, there is still no clear definition of what the method encompasses. Common understanding is that the persona is a description of a fictitious person, but whether this description is based on assumptions or data is not clear, and opinions also differ on what the persona description should cover. Furthermore, there is no agreement on the benefits of the method in the design process; the benefits are seen as ranging from increasing the focus on users and their needs, to being an effective communication tool, to having direct design influence, such as leading to better design decisions and defining the product’s feature set (Cooper, 1999; Cooper et al, 2007; Grudin & Pruitt, 2002; Long, 2009; Ma & LeRouge, 2007; Miaskiewicz & Kozar, 2011; Pruitt & Adlin, 2006).
A persona is not the same as an archetype or a person. The special aspect of a persona description is that you do not look at the entire person, but use the area of focus or domain you are working within as a lens to highlight the relevant attitudes and the specific context associated with the area of work.
1. An example persona
Dorte is 53 years old and works as a secretary in her husband’s plumbing business in the suburbs of Copenhagen. There are 5-6 assistants and apprentices in the company.
When Dorte was very young she trained as an office clerk in the accounts department in a department store in Copenhagen. She was married at the age of 21 to Jan who had just got his skilled worker’s certificate. They have two grown-up sons who no longer live at home in the combined house and workshop/office. Their sons visit frequently as they still enjoy mum’s cooking.
Dorte likes to keep up with fashion. She often goes to the hairdresser, loves vibrant colours and elegant shoes. When she reads women’s magazines, she looks for small tips that she changes and makes her own. She is always smartly dressed and stays fit.
Dorte loves travelling to faraway countries; most recently, she and her family were on a trip to Vietnam this summer. Before they went, she spent time reading up on the country and also watched the film Indochine starring Catherine Deneuve. Dorte always discusses the vacations with Jan, who would prefer to go to Rhodes with old friends, but it is Dorte who has the final say about the destination.
In an average day, she tends to drink too many cups of coffee, and when the telephone rings all the time and she can’t reach the assistants, she also tends to smoke a bit too much.
Dorte makes payments to the Danish early retirement benefit scheme and looks forward to the day where she no longer has to be the “mum” of others any more and can spend more time travelling.
Dorte does the accounts and the bookkeeping, VAT, taxes, vacation pay, the Danish Labour Market Supplementary Pension ATP, etc. She uses a mini financial management system that she has mastered after many years of use, but sometimes the system is not completely logical.
If she were to use other systems or use new, digital reporting, she would prefer it to be demonstrated to her by someone. She feels unable to learn something new when it is just explained to her, and she dislikes reading user guides. She says it takes her a long time to study anything new and familiarise herself with it, and she tends to see more limitations than possibilities in new IT. Dorte often underestimates her IT proficiency and overestimates the time that it will take to learn something new, so she stalls before she even gets started.
If she needs IT help, her oldest son and, less often, a woman friend provide the support. The friend works in a big company and is a super-user of the financial management software.
Dorte handles the tax cards for the business. She deals with and reports the wages, vacations, sickness benefits, and maternity leaves of the staff. She does the VAT returns and annual accounts of the company. In addition, she fills in the reports for Statistics Denmark and the Employer’s Reimbursement System AER.
Dorte does not understand the logic of the IT system and does not trust everything to happen as it should. If she sends in a return form or report digitally, she likes a confirmation saying that the recipient has received the form.
- She is not involved in the plumbing business as a trade, but she knows all the technical terms.
- She tidies things up. She does not want the others (her husband and the assistants) to make a mess in the basement where the office is as she is the one who has to look at it all day “Tidy up! Your mum does not work here!”
- She digs in and sometimes has to keep far too many balls in the air at the same time.
- She holds the fort, but does not get a lot of professional recognition in the company from the boss/her husband.
- She answers the telephone, handles mail, deliveries of goods (including invoices and delivery letters), and email.
- She handles the accounts, does some bookkeeping and writes invoices.
- She makes the coffee.
- She has occasional contact with the accountant.
- She does the invoicing of clients.
- She sends/delivers mail every day.
- She sends reminders.
- She handles customer contact (including damage control).
- She also walks the dog.
Dorte dreams about a future where she no longer has to work and where she can spend more time travelling. She is still debating with Jan whether they should travel or buy a summer cottage where they can live all year round when they retire.
Figure 30.1: Persona for Virk.dk. Virk.dk is a portal for digital reporting. At Virk.dk, Danish companies can find all the forms needed for reporting to the authorities.
The persona approach stems from IT system development where in the late 1990s many researchers had begun reflecting on how you could communicate an understanding of the users. In literature, various concepts emerged, such as user archetypes, user models, lifestyle snapshots, and model users — as I termed it when I first wrote about the method in 1997. In 1999, Alan Cooper published his tremendously successful The Inmates are Running the Asylum (Cooper, 1999) where the persona as a concept to describe fictitious users was introduced for the first time. Despite the fact that a vast number of articles about using personas have been written, there is no unilateral understanding of the application of the method nor a definition of what a persona description is.
2. Four different perspectives
The literature today offers four different perspectives regarding personas: Alan Cooper’s goal-directed perspective; Jonathan Grudin, John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin’s role-based perspective; the engaging perspective that I myself use, which emphasizes how the story can engage the reader (Sønderstrup-Andersen, 2007); and the fiction-based perspective. The first three perspectives agree that the persona descriptions should be founded on data. However, the fourth perspective, the fiction-based perspective, does not include data as the basis for persona description, but creates personas from the designers’ intuition and assumptions; they have names such as ad hoc personas, assumption personas, and extreme characters.
2.1 The goal-directed perspective
Cooper characterizes his persona method as “Goal-Directed Design” and maintains that it makes the designer understand the user. Thus, Goal Directed Design is meant as an efficient psychological tool for looking at problems and a guide for the design process. The central core of the method is the hypothetical archetype that is not described as an average person, but rather as a unique character with specific details.
The method focuses on a move from initial personas to final personas. In the beginning of the process, a large number of personas are created based on in-depth ethnographic research. The initial personas grasp an intuitive understanding of user characteristics. Later on, these are condensed into final personas, one persona for each kind of user. Every project has its own set of personas (Floyd et al., 2008).
A persona is defined by its personal, practical, and company-oriented goals as well as by the relationship with the product to be designed, the emotions of the persona when using the product, and the goals of the persona in using the product (hence Goal-Directed).
In other words, it is the users’ (work) goals that are the focus of the persona descriptions, e.g. workflow, contexts, and attitudes. And, as implied, the advantage of the method is that it provides a focused design and a communication tool to finish discussions.
2.2 The role-based perspective
The role-based perspective shares goal direction with Cooper and also focuses on behaviour. The personas of the role-based perspective are massively data-driven and incorporate data from both qualitative and quantitative sources. Often, dozens of personas are shared among projects (Floyd et al, 2008).
The starting point of the role-based perspective was criticism of the traditional IT system development approaches and of Cooper’s approach to personas. The traditional use of scenarios is criticized for lacking clarity and consistency in the user descriptions. Therefore, the critics introduced user archetypes, which can communicate the most important knowledge about the users and thereby support the design process. Jonathan Grudin and John Pruitt criticized Alan Cooper for underestimating the value of user involvement and for seeing the method as one single method that can handle anything (Mikkelson & Lee, 2000),(Grudin & Pruitt, 2002).
The role-based perspective used the criticism as a starting point to develop the method further. The most important additions are, firstly that both qualitative and quantitative materials must supplement the persona descriptions; and secondly that there should be a clear relationship between data and the persona description (Grudin & Pruitt, 2002). Personas can communicate more than design decisions to designers and clients; they can also communicate information from market research, usability tests, and prototypes to all participants in the project. Finally, the method is regarded as a usability method that cannot stand alone, but should be used in tandem with other methods. The persona description itself should contain information about several issues: how big a share of the market the individual persona takes up; how much market influence the persona has; the user’s computer proficiency, activities, and hopes and fears; and a description of a typical day or week in the life of the user. In addition to this are strategic and tactical considerations (Pruitt & Adlin, 2006).
The role-based perspective focuses on the users’ roles in the organization (Sønderstrup-Andersen, 2007). Personas are an efficient design tool because of our cognitive ability to use fragmented and incomplete knowledge to form a complete vision of the people who surround us. With personas, this ability comes into play in the design process, and the advantage is that a greater sense of involvement and a better understanding of reality will be created.
2.3 The engaging perspective
The engaging perspective is rooted in the ability of stories to produce involvement and insight. Through an understanding of characters and stories, it is possible to create a vivid and realistic description of fictitious people. The purpose of the engaging perspective is to move from designers seeing the user as a stereotype with whom they are unable to identify and whose life they cannot envision, to designers actively involving themselves in the lives of the personas. The other persona perspectives are criticized for causing a risk of stereotypical descriptions by not looking at the whole person, but instead focusing only on behaviour (Nielsen, 2004;Nielsen, 2011; Nielsen 2012).
The starting point for the engaging perspective is the way we as humans interact with other people. We experience specific meetings in time and place. We mirror ourselves in the people we meet. And we experience others as both identical to and different from ourselves. Also, we experience relationships that are not specific and where the person we meet is anonymous and represents a type. Here, we use our experiences to understand the person and to predict what actions he or she will perform. If the designers see the users as stereotypical representations, they mould a mental image of the users together with a number of typical and automated acts. These representations prevent insight into the unique situation of the users and reduce the value of the scenario as a tool to investigate and describe future solutions.
An engaging description requires a broad knowledge of the users, and data should include information about the social backgrounds of the users, their psychological characteristics, and their emotional relationship with the focus area. The persona descriptions balance data and knowledge about real applications and fictitious information that is intended to evoke empathy. This way, the persona method is a defence against automated thinking.
2.4 The fiction-based perspective
The personas in the fiction-based perspective are often used to explore design and generate discussion and insights in the field (Floyd et al., 2008). Ad hoc personas are based on the designers’ intuition and experience and used to create an empathetic focus in the design process (Norman, 2004). Extreme characters help to generate design insights and explore the edges of the design space (Djajadiningrat et al, 2000). Assumption personas are based on the project teams’ assumed understanding of their users (Adlin & Pruitt, 2006). Proto-personas originate from brainstorming workshops, where company participants try to encapsulate the organization’s beliefs (based on their domain expertise and gut feeling) about who is using their product or service and what is motivating them to do so. They give an organization a starting point from which to begin evaluating its products and to come up with some early design hypotheses (Gothelf, 2012). Pastiche scenarios create personas derived from fiction, like Bridget Jones or Ebenezer Scrooge, and help designers to be reflexive when creating scenarios (Blythe & Wright 2006). Examples of pastiche scenarios can be seen at Mark Blythe’s website.
These personas have spurred discussions about validity and value (see e.g. When does a Persona stop being a Persona and Assumption personas help overcome hurdles). In line with Adlin & Pruitt (2006), James Robertson (2008) in his article Beyond Fake Personassuggests a continuum from Persona Sketch, over Persona Hypothesis and Provisional Personas, to Robust Personas ending in Complete Personas.
2.5 Other perspectives
Floyd et. al. 2008 mention three additional types that they have come across: Quantitative data driven personas are extracted from natural groupings in quantitative data: User archetypes as personas are similar to personas, but more generic, usually defined by role or position: Finally Marketing personas are created for marketing reasons and not to support design.
Criticism of the persona method pertains to empiricism, especially the relationship between data and fiction. The implementation of the persona method in companies has also come under fire (Chapman et al, 2008; Chapman & Milham, 2006; Portigal, 2008; Rönkkö et al, 2004).
Because the persona descriptions have fictitious elements, some find it difficult to see the relationship with real users and the way that the data used is collected and analysed. Furthermore, the fictitious elements apparently prevent the method from being regarded as scientific, as one of the criteria for a scientific method is that the study must be reproducible. This critique is based on an objectivistic scientific paradigm where science consists of statements that can be verified. In contrast to this is the interpretative paradigm where science is understood as the object of continual clarification and discussion (Kvale, 1997). The persona method is as such qualitative; deep knowledge of user needs, attitudes, and behaviour is gathered using qualitative methods. Thus this criticism can be disproven as the critics having misunderstood the starting point of the method.
The method has additionally been criticized for not being able to describe actual people as it only depicts characteristics.
When it comes to implementation, the method is criticized for preventing designers meeting actual users, as actual stories and encounters with real users are assumed to give a better understanding of the users’ needs. Yet another objection is that the method does not take into consideration internal politics, and that this can lead to limited use. Lately, the latter has been refuted, as can be seen in the suggested 10 steps to personas that involve the organisation as many steps as possible.