1 February 2018

A Better Way to Build Personas

by Stephanie Lummis

Write personas without demographics. I tried it, and you should too.

I was inspired by an excellent article by Indi Young, “Describing Personas”. It made the case for removing demographic details from personas in order to reduce bias in the tools, sites, campaigns and apps they inform .

Age, Sex, Salary, Marital Status

I have been writing personas and leading clients through persona development in workshops for almost 10 years. I always enjoyed the process: choosing a photo and then imagining who they are:

Example of a persona with demographic details
Ditch the demographics in your personas
  • How old are they?
  • Are they married? Kids?
  • What are their hobbies?
  • What kind of education do they have?

For me this was the fun part, tapping into creative writing and crafting a character. Little did I know I may have been unintentionally doing harm.

The article makes a strong case that all those details are irrelevant. When you read a description like, “27 years old, product manager for a search engine, married, plays tennis on weekends, has a German shepherd, drives an F150,” you make assumptions and judgements about the behaviours and attitudes of that person.

Who did you picture? Was it a guy? This describes me in 2001 and for a good chunk of my 4 years at the search engine I was the only female of 22 employees. People make assumptions based on stereotypes. And these details have no impact on what someone wants to experience your on website, or how.

Stereotypes can lead to bias

Yes, sometimes the demographics are inherent in the product or service. If you were building an app to teach elementary school math, a campaign to promote a seniors community, or an ESL site – of course the demographic details matter. But in most cases, you can safely remove them.

When I wrote personas, I would try not to make my descriptions match any stereotypes, stretching them in the opposite direction. This wasn’t serving the purpose of the persona, however. Regardless of your approach, a fleshed-out demographic persona might unconsciously cause you to narrow who you test with. Or maybe the description or photo reminds you of someone and you push their attributes onto the persona.

This can be harmful, as Sara Wachter-Boettcher describes in her book, “Technically Wrong”. It’s about how biases get baked into digital products. This is only one of many reasons, but after reading the book, I feel a greater sense of responsibility toward the people who use the content and products I help build.

Motivations and behaviours should be the focus

When it came time to create a persona for a recent content strategy project, I decided to heed Indi’s advice and ditch the demographics and focus on the behaviours, needs and motivations of the audience. I had conducted half a dozen customer interviews and had 3rd-party research and analytics to back me up.

Now, behaviours, needs and motivations have always been a part of my personas, but to focus my creative energy into them was freeing in a way. I didn’t have someone pictured in my head. My audience was c-level executives at mid-to-large-sized organizations. I could have imagined male or female, 33 or 65 years old, Irish or Indian, cyclist or crossword puzzle addict. And NONE of these details would impact how I crafted the content strategy. What mattered was that they were innovative, lifelong learners who care about growing their employees into leaders.

Build empathy to tell a story

For a persona to be effective, you need to create empathy and dig deeper to understand motivations and intent. By not including demographics it forced me to pay greater attention to the other details, and tell the story. Why does this audience behave the way they do? Who and what influences their actions and ideas?

I gave my persona a name: Blair, a pretty common unisex name for the past 40 years. I admit it was awkward using ‘they’ and ‘their’ all the time instead of his/hers/he/she. It doesn’t sound grammatically correct (painful for a pedant like me). Hopefully these will sound more natural over time as they increase in use.

Persona writing tips

The article had a few other great tips that I will try out next time:

  • Write in 1st-person. This avoids the awkwardness of gender-neutral pronouns. As well, I can see how this approach could help establish empathy.
  • Use life-phases instead of ages. Indi’s examples were “new-parent” and “near-retiree”: both conjure behaviours and attitudes that would  influence the user experience. Also both could be in their early 40s, but who cares?

While I have only written a demographic-less persona once, I will do it again and further refine it into my practice. Whether the persona is driving a content strategy, the user experience for a new site, or campaign planning, your audience will benefit. Consider it for your next project and take a look at these excellent resources.

“Describing Personas”, by Indi Young
“Technically Wrong”, by Sara Wachter-Boettcher
Unisex Names dating back to 1880. Bit of fun – explains my Great Uncle Beverly

Do your personas need an update? Let’s talk.