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A post by
Ana Pavuna
November 27, 2018

Behaviours over personas: erasing bias from design

Behaviours over personas: erasing bias from design

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

A post by
Ana Pavuna
November 27, 2018
min read

From marketing to design, personas are used in a multitude of fields. By giving a snapshot of real individuals, they can help facilitate communication between stakeholders and reduce risk during product development.

Why use personas?

Based on data gathered from many individuals, personas can succinctly illustrate the lives of those who are expected to use the product.They serve as representations, or a form of blueprint, of different user groups. They are also a useful way of humanising cold research facts as well as turning data into interactive tools.

A great reason to use personas is that they help us avoid the pitfalls of ‘self-referential design’. This is when someone designs for herself or himself rather than for an audience.

Developing personas can be a useful reminder for designers to be empathetic — a quality we often talk about at Ostmodern — in that they allow designers to walk in the user’s shoes and relate to the user’s stories. Drawing on these is comparable to method acting for designers: it helps us prioritise the needs of a persona over our own.

Having personas also facilitates communication. They offer a talking point and act as means for exchanging ideas between stakeholders and teams. Once personas are put in place, teams can easily communicate with one another — for example, they can provide the justification for why a specific feature is being built to satisfy one or multiple persona needs.

In short, personas are a reference device that allows us to summarise complex data sets of an audience.

What then is the problem with personas?

Although personas are useful, they are also complicated. There are several challenges with personas. I will touch on three.

First, when developing a persona, it can be hard to find the right balance between portraying users in a relatable way and inadvertently creating stereotypes that kill creativity.

Take the example persona of ‘Sofia’. A backstory might have been added that ‘Sofia’ is 35 years old, married to a man with whom she has 2 children. While this story might include a character that is easy to picture, or relate to, it can also establish an over-simplistic, stereotypical view of the audience, which invariably stifles creativity.

We like to call this the ‘stereotype backlash’.

‘Sofia’ and other generic personas

If the end goal of a product is to innovate in a way that accommodates a variety of people’s needs and expectations, the last thing you want is to stem the flow of ideas during product development. Your team shouldn’t act under the belief that the audience is limited to a two dimensional woman, struggling to balance her work and family life.

While it is good to tell a human story that offers a reference point to draw from later in the design process, it is more important not to make the complexity of the research too simplistic. It is essential to impart the nuanced data relating to personas as well as to ensure that personas do not fall into a stereotype just for the sake of empathy.

Second, if they are not backed up by robust research, or if the parameters of that research are not understood, personas can be full of biases and oversights. These can lead to certain assumptions which are bad for the product.

Third, personas are used differently depending on the discipline, for example in design or marketing. Know why you are creating a persona in the first place, and remember this while you use it. Creating a persona for one purpose and reusing it for another, entirely different purpose only ever causes problems.

In the digital design industry, there is a big misunderstanding between marketing-focused personas and product-focused personas. These separate categories focus on different audience segmentations and attributes.

Very often, we find ourselves explaining why marketing personas can’t be used for product design.

  • Marketing personas focus on details such as demographics, lifestyle and segments of consumers that the brand wants to reach. With an emphasis on brands and awareness, marketing personas usually (not always) relate to wide segments of a market and ‘macro’ decision-making.
  • Personas for products are about usage: crucially, they must reflect the details of using a product.

Switching focus to behaviours

In product design, we look at behaviour-focused personas. We don’t concentrate necessarily on who the users are but rather on what they do and why they do it. This is more valuable to us, as someone’s description or characteristics do not necessarily align with their individual behaviours.

Individuals tend to demonstrate shared behaviours across all personas. A user’s goals can change as they journey through a product, meaning that each user can fit into multiple behavioural personas.

An example of individuals demonstrating shared behaviours

As a general rule, in our approach to user insights at Ostmodern, we keep a close eye on anything that could bring a potential bias to the designs. (Age, gender, and unnecessary backstories are the common variables.)

The exception is when these variables are meant to have a bearing on the design; for instance, when creating products for children it is essential to consider how to accommodate parents as much as children, and to reflect on their different end goals for the product.

Personas can be a useful starting point, but it is important to remember that they are simply a form of representation — not a fully-fleshed reality. Use them as a reference point and track back to them. However, keep in mind that it is the behaviour which matters the most. This is true because what is useful for the mechanics of UI design is allowing universal goals to be achieved.

By dehumanising personas and distilling them into ‘behaviours’ rather than demographics, we can more accurately represent how the needs of individuals peak and evolve over time when using digital products.

'Personas are a means but, as with every means, they must be treated with discretion.'

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