For the longest time, I was skeptical of the value of personas in the user-centered design process. They felt too narrow, too constricted, too idiosyncratic for me to design for.
That’s changed of late. User research is primarily about empathy — getting designers and developers to have empathy for their users, and be able to deliver products and services that really appreciate the users’ needs and goals. And personas are perhaps the best tool in the user-centered design toolbox for communicating empathy — they feel like real people with real concerns, and when crafted well, can transfer insights realized through research to other members of the project team.
Because, for me, personas are all about empathy, I get riled up when I see persona deliverables that diminish the reader’s capacity for empathy. And perhaps the most pernicious element that I keep seeing cropping up in personas is the “user type.”
Here’s a persona chart developed for Kivio, a diagramming tool similar to Visio. (I found it here.) There are many qualities I appreciate about this chart, such as just enough information to understand who these folks are (more detail if you click the link), specific characteristics about how they would engage with this product, good images to help us believe in these as individuals. All of these are great at creating empathy for them, and helping designers better understand how to serve them.
But there’s one thing that keeps them at arm’s length: “The researcher,” “The Sysadmin,” “The OSS Developer,” “The CS Student.” It is common practice for personas to be given these kinds of user type labels but that practice diminishes our ability to empathize.
It might seem like a small thing, but the moment these folks are typed they become members of a class, and their identities are now of being in those groups — and you start referring to that persona as “the Sysadmin” and not “Donald.” It doesn’t take much to go from typing to stereotyping–“Sysadmins want these kinds of features”–and once that happens, empathy is lost.