dotsA Portal Into the Contextual Ecosystem of Human Experience
by Lena Blackstock & Dr. Scott Pobiner

This article was first published in the Design edition of MISC/ magazine, Volume 26.

Personas are transitional artifacts that allow us to synthesize discovered insights into actionable touchpoints. When implemented, framed, and socialized properly, they provide a means to help both client and consultant teams navigate a smooth transition from discovery to design strategy –all without losing invaluable contextual information. In design, particularly in strategic design, we use personas to expose our clients, and ourselves, to the discoveries our colleagues make in the field about the people we design for. In doing so, we create an entry point to the rich ecosystem of human insights and the contexts they are discovered within – helping us to construct frames for empathy and to align everyone on common objectives.

In the early 80s, Alan Cooper developed personas to empathize with and internalize the mindset of people who would eventually use the software he was designing. He was also trying to find better ways to inform and communicate to his clients the human-centered knowledge he had gained from the research he conducted. Today, the clients we work with and the outcomes they expect require the study of complex topics with sufficient depth to warrant collaborating with colleagues from the social sciences. These highly-skilled social scientists help us understand human needs and desires, and they provide us with the behavioral and social drivers required to build a case for challenging convention and introducing innovations that have real and lasting impact. It can be daunting to take in the rich context that is captured by the eyes and ears of experts in-field, so it is important to find a way to define entry points that unlock the potential of anthro- pological insight. We believe that personas, if framed properly, can be a perfect tool to create these entry points, helping to guide all parties toward a shared understanding and affording a more resolute and efficient path to be forged.

Personas should not be seen as a deliverable, but rather as an active tool to keep everyone honest and talking about what satisfies human needs. Frank Long at the National College of Art and Design conducted a study in 2009, titled “Real or Imaginary: The Effectiveness of Using Personas in Product Design,” to explore the value of personas as a design tool. In his paper, Long found that “through using personas, designs with superior usability characteristics were produced. They also indicate that using personas provides a significant advantage during the research and conceptualization stages of the design process.” As Cooper recognized, and Long validated, personas are a valuable communication tool that help to ensure that design outcomes meet the demands of the people for whom they are designed and the contexts in which they are expected to be used. Personas are a portal into the kinds of human experiences that are difficult to appreciate without the thoughtful guidance of an expert. Further, instead of using personas in isolation, they should be an active and evolving component of the user-centered design toolkit, and used alongside tools and methods like scenarios, prototypes, and user tests. As Shlomo Goltz explains in A Closer Look at Personas, when used in concert, these tools help to build empathy, develop focus, communicate and form consensus, make and defend decisions, and measure effectiveness. Personas help to keep everyone involved, honest, and mindful of when they are truly designing for others and when they are just pushing their own biases. Cooper’s work also discussed an important shift that is achieved by using personas. Without them, others in the process talk  about the “end user” without being specific – allowing the term “user” to stretch to fit the situation. Cooper’s approach was to “print out copies of the cast of characters and distribute it at every meeting… Until the user is precisely defined, the programmer can always imagine that he is the user.” In Cooper’s goal-driven process, the goals that we derive from personas are the main component of the whole process. He writes, “Personas are the single most powerful design tool that we use. They are the foundation for all subsequent goal- directed design. Personas allow us to see the scope and nature of the design problem… [They] are the bright light under which we do surgery.”

Of course, if we were to look beyond Cooper and Long, there are different opinions on the value and effectiveness of personas. They fall into roughly two camps with equally thoughtful cases:

/ Those who want to preserve the vast richness and complexity of human insights
/ Those who are more concerned with focusing those insights, and the context in which they are gathered, only on actionable outcomes

As such, those whose work is closer to tangible outcomes see value in using them as a tool, while those who work at the fuzzy front end of the innovation process tend to question their ability to lead to true human understanding. Indeed, there are good cases to be made in both camps, because, in
the last decade, design has found expanded relevance and salience with audiences at, and beyond, the edges of the traditional disciplines that once defined the edges by application (think: architect, graphic designer, planner). As IDEO’s Tim Brown said, “Whenever we do something to improve the state of the world, we’re designing.”
So, today the question of who isn’t a designer seems more applicable. The unintended consequence of the “big tent” approach is increasingly diverse teams that struggle to communicate with one another, and – more importantly – with the clients and stakeholders they serve when they try to untangle the complex, sometimes confusing behaviors found in-field. In the white spaces between all these new entrants, we find an opportunity to assert the utility of the humble persona. Not a static and forgettable distillation of insights work, but instead a dynamic tool that can help carry insights from discovery, through design, toward real action.

Here, we present three ways of framing persona usage at these points of entry:

The Observatory Window
An observatory persona opens a window onto the rich contextual landscape that is gathered during the discovery phase. In this frame, the persona is defined broadly and placed into a variety of contexts.

Alice’s Looking Glass
A looking glass persona challenges us to think beyond the biased or narrow assumptions we tend to have about humans and their needs at various moments along a customer journey. This is done in the hope that beyond those biases lies a willingness to see the human condition with fresh eyes, and a desire to explore solving problems. new ways of  solving problems.

The Magic Mirror
A magic mirror persona is a catalyst for co-creation that demands engagement and discussion. Like all magic mirrors, these personas won’t simply give their insights without taking something in return. It is also possible that the conclusions we draw from them are neither convenient nor comfortable – but this is one of the key values to using a persona as a portal. The inconvenient truth is often the one we are least willing to hear, and, equally often, is the most important.

One of the ways in which we can apply the above frames is by designing new modalities for personas. One “magic mirror” approach, for example, uses a voice-only persona narrative to encourage workshop participants to explore human experience through listening and reflection – without the assumptions that come along with a visual experience. The “audio persona” places the human voice at the center, which limits visual bias and distraction and encourages listeners to imagine not only the persona behind the voice, but the person beyond it. Without a visual reference, listeners can focus on the presentation of the persona narrative and fill in the blanks with their own experience and knowledge. This can occur while focusing on clearly defined key characteristics, in order for listeners to be able to avoid falling into the trap of designing for themselves. This tool is designed to incorporate larger audiences, where multiple stakeholders need to be able to experience a persona together and to get them to discuss points that stand out.

Our hope is to design different formats for personas that support a multi-modal approach to learning and offer a superior context for memory. In turn, they allow for empathy to take shape. By offering multiple formats of any given persona – such as audio-only, immersive and interactive, film, or social media profiles – we can allow those interacting with the persona to truly internalize human needs, increasing the chances that they will act and design with those needs in mind. When we share personas, we expect people to naturally empathize with others to make these connections – but this is quite a challenge, because finding empathy in an abstraction is a learned skill that must be nurtured in order to be used effectively. Sometimes the way in which we render personas – whether it’s an image we choose, or the prose we use to describe needs – reinforces a priori bias, making it even harder to see past the abstraction. In other cases, we obfuscate a rich human story with data points that essentialize the identity of a person, losing vital context in the process. As a result, instead of personas being leveraged as tools that help us get to the next stage of a project, people start to see a solution, and in doing so, they stop asking questions. This challenge is all the more compounded by the inherent conflict between traditional client education – which can be slow – and the need to help a client toward a real solution as quickly as possible. To confront this challenge, we need to develop methods that reveal tangible insights as we aim to dig deeper into the lives of the people we design for, while simultaneously driving toward actionable solutions through purposeful design artifacts.

The next time you find yourself wondering how to untangle the messy reality that we humans create for ourselves, look for an observatory window to look out of, find a looking glass to walk through, or just ask the mirror on the wall: “Who are they, to me?” Make use of your personas and leverage them for what they can be: a design tool and a portal into the contextual ecosystem of human experience.

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