In the business of interaction, product and service design the place we all begin is with the customer. We create a laser focus on who the person who will use the product is and what their true needs are. Often this involves researching the market and then culling that research down to a few, central, outlines of the people we've spoken to. These outlines are meant to be an combination of many different people, taking common themes and grouping them into actionable packages of needs, habits and more.
We call these grouped outlines of people, personas. Persona is an interesting word. In Latin it refers to a mask worn by actors. The more modern meaning is from Carl Jung's use of the word to reference the difference between who we are inside and the "persona" that we present to the world around us. But when it comes to design the original use of "persona" is actually more accurate. Why?
The masks worn by actors in the theaters of ancient Rome often pulled from a standard assortment of characters that everyone in audience was aware of. These were the standard archetypes (again a word used in design research to define larger groups of your audience) of their time. Groupings of characters that, when they appear, the audience knew exactly what their role was to be. The actors job was simply to bring physical form to the character. The personas exist today. You can see them today at your local movie theater. We have
- the young male hero
- the ingenue (naive girl becomes heroine)
- the villain king (powerful villain)
- the trickster (sometimes the villain, other times the comedic relief)
These were the original personas. Their roots date back well before the word existed, in fact, according the Joseph Campbell, these personas have existed since we began telling stories. His primary work, the Hero Myth is famous for being used by George Lucas to write the story of Luke Skywalker.
And as another aside, since I can't help myself, Campbell's example shows the birth of "persona" and becomes the connecting root between the theatrical meaning of persona and the Jungian meaning of persona as Campbell is, at his root, Jungian. (too tangential I know… sorry)
The Persona Today
In our research to understand the audience for a particular product or service today we seek to create new, more detailed and focused versions of those original personas. Nearly always our bias is to create new versions of the hero and ingenue roles. Splitting them into new age ranges and giving them in depth details of life and needs. We give them far more life than their traditions dictate. And that's a great thing. Without this addition of information and detail we would be stuck in the past. We would be constricted.
What this additional detail gets us is a deeper understanding of who our audience is. It's like that game played at cafes and bars between two people. Select a random passerby and tell your friend their story. Who are they, what have they been up to just before they got there. At the end of the day, this is the game you're playing when developing personas. Of course, we use research to add more accuracy, we may even walk up to those random passersby and cheat at the game by asking them what they've been doing (usually much more boring that the results of the game.)
So what are the details one should focus on when developing a successful persona?
Traditionally this was a simple question:
- Location (urban/rural, city, state, country)
- Age range (these were preset groups)
- Income (again preset groups)
- Number of children
Today we know that these stats don't capture the elements that lead to decision making. We know that decisions are based on an emotional response to needs and that needs are fairly universal. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs shows us that, along with the basics of food, shelter and safety we all desire self-actualization, aesthetic fulfillment, cognitive growth and love.
Capturing these factors is more challenging than traditional research. It requires spending time with people with the goal of understanding how they solve the challenges around them. We talk about approaching a group of people with a clean slate. Of understanding how they hack the world around them and to discover the things that each person does to feel unique.
This knowledge leads to a deeper understanding of how decisions are made within a group. From there the persona can be filled in with stories of various people within the group to generate a new representational mask. But it's only through this process of attempting to understand and mapping those challenges and solutions that we can come to a clear understanding of what makes a persona.
Today, in addition to the stats from traditional persona development you need:
- An understanding how the group of people approach a challenge
- An understanding of their collective design aesthetic
- An outline of the daily activities that consume their time (customer journey)
- A sense of their ambition for the future (do they seek out new ideas?)
- A map of the technology they currently use
It's a long way from the hero myth but each of these are key to understanding which hero we're talking about and what they need to achieve their potential.
If you're curious how we go about understanding all of this, drop me a note. I'd be happy to talk more with you about it: jacob [at] stackhouse dot cc or just fill out the form below.