Employing user personas is a subject I already addressed on this blog, as this technique of mapping out the needs of your audience is an essential tool in product development. I’ve also mentioned in the past that agile timelines are not always afforded the lengthy periods needed to invest in complex personas, and discussed the alternative of using Lean Personas. These, less detailed, profiles can still provide the value and insights your team needs. In this article, I discuss another aspect to be taken into account when constructing user personas – the need for diversification.
Introduced in the 90’s, the use of user personas has proved itself to be a very effective tool to help designers and developers understand the people they create for. They are also imperative for creating product roadmaps and serve as a focal point along the development process.
However, user personas as a method do have some pitfalls. The most significant of these is that they may limit the team’s perceptions of their future users. This problem is amplified by the most natural of human tendencies – thinking only about ourselves. Thus, designers and product managers often create personas in their own image, missing potential audiences and ignoring the needs of people who come from different backgrounds.
The term diversification may seem to have political connotations. And indeed there many in the product design field who call for Inclusive Design, which means taking into account the needs of disabled and impaired users alongside those with no special needs. However, the need for diversification is far from just a moral requirement. In many cases, our own stereotypical thinking leads to creating personas that are based on assumptions and miss actual target audiences.
How can we make sure that the personas our products will be developed for will really represent a wide range of potential clients? Here are some ideas:
Start with existing clients
I don’t need to tell you that existing users are your most important asset for gathering information. By gathering and analyzing their feedback you can learn much more than you ever imagined. When creating user personas, data from your actual users should be your starting point. However, that data may not be available to you, whether because you are in the initial stages of development, or for other reasons. In these cases, continue to my next suggestions.
Gather insights from people around you
As I already mentioned, all humans tend to think in set templates and stereotypes. So your own imagination can only take you so far. Use the priceless resource of the people around you. Talk to your colleagues and gather their input on potential personas. Team members from different backgrounds may have insights you could not have come up with.
Base user personas on research, not assumptions
Ideally, user personas would be based on accurate analysis of vast databases, fine-tuned to match your perfect customers. But this is rarely the case and it is certainly not an ideal that works for the agile development process. But this doesn’t mean that research should not be a part of your method. Using widely available data like that published by the American Census Bureau can prove immensely eye-opening. Another valuable tool is Facebook Audience Insights, which allows us to gather real data on the preferences of various demographics.
Consider dispensing with demographics altogether
Data Scientist and researcher Indi Young suggests that designers build personas without including any information on their age, gender, ethnicity or location. She writes that “Demographics can cause assumptions, shortcuts in thinking, and subconscious stereotypes by team members.” And claims that it’s the personas’ reasoning that interests us as developers, and reasoning, in most cases, has little to do with demographics. While this approach may seem extreme, the idea of limiting what we include in our persona description resonates with the concept of the lean persona and may help us overcome the limitations of our own minds when we are searching for new target audiences.