What’s My Persona? Developing a Deep and Dimensioned Character

By Traci Lepore

Published: September 7, 2009

“Designers gather data to understand the personas that represent the users for whom they are designing a user interface. This is quite similar to the way actors must develop an understanding of their characters.”

Recently, I played a character that was originally written as a male. Now, it was Shakespeare, so some gender bending wasn’t totally out of the ordinary. However, in this particular production, we did more than is usual. Things got a little confusing at first—with the pronoun changes and all—but it was fun hearing people called by the wrong gender for a few days. I did find myself having to think about my character in a different manner than I normally would though, making the role a challenge that gave my character-development skills a nice little stretch.

If I was going to play this role as a female, what did that mean for my relationships with the other characters? What did I want out of my interactions with them? How did I fit into the overall picture? I was a female who hung out with the guys and was better friends with them rather than with other females. But why was that so? Did it make me a tomboy? I didn’t think so, because when it came to push or shove, I was a woman, getting angry and ranting just as much as the other females. Plus, the director wanted me all decked out in jewelry. Not very tomboyish now is it?

What I came to realize was that I needed to understand my motives and objectives clearly to make this character make sense as a female. It was going to take some thought and plenty of frustrating run-throughs to find a character who would be believable on stage—one that most certainly wouldn’t live as written on paper. But that’s why we do theater—to experience the fun of the unexpected.

Why do I bring this up? Because, like another UX professional, Mads Soegaard, who said the origin of personas likely came from the theatrical traditions, I believe designers gather data to understand the personas that represent the users for whom they are designing a user interface. This is quite similar to the way actors must develop an understanding of their characters. So, developing their character-building and storytelling skills can help designers—just as it does actors. Constantin Stanislavski, whose method of actor training remains a crucial studying point for American actors, said it well:

“To create a believable character on-stage, the actor must become the human being that is the character he is portraying…must utilize a systematic method of gradually moving away from himself into another human individuality.”—Constantin Stanislavski, in An Actor Prepares

Personas: The Believable Characters That Help Designers Design

In the UX world, we know the value of personas. Personas do all of this for us:

  • They lend a personal face to our user population.
  • They provide guidance for design.
  • They help us understand who it is we are designing for.
  • They fill in for users when you can’t—or it isn’t practical to—talk to them.
“UX design is a form of communication that is not just visual or verbal. It is about the way we expect an interaction to happen—the complete experience.”

We do not always have the luxury of actually getting to talk to users. In fact, sometimes we have nothing else to rely on but our personas when developing our ideas. But if personas are going to be useful, they have some big shoes to fill.

UX design is a form of communication that is not just visual or verbal. It is about the way we expect an interaction to happen—the complete experience. Thus, scenarios that help tell the stories of how our personas would interact—or act or perform—within a new design are also another level of communication beyond the verbal or visual. And more than just communication, UX design is empathy—an understanding of and identification with the user population. By developing this empathy, you can help ensure users can take full advantage of your product—being able to use it without frustration and with happiness, enjoyment, and engagement.

Believable Characters Don’t Exist on a Piece of Paper

“No evangelizer of user-centered design would deny the value of personas and scenarios. However, we must admit that, sometimes, they just seem to be lacking something in their fleshing out that would make them real and tangible.”

No evangelizer of user-centered design would deny the value of personas and scenarios. However, we must admit that, sometimes, they just seem to be lacking something in their fleshing out that would make them real and tangible—truly believable characters and situations. They can be too abstracted or have too much fluff—for example, they may be cluttered with irrelevant details. No business stakeholder wants to know what kind of dog some fictional persona has or that their favorite TV show is American Idol—unless this helps drive needs that relate to the business.

There is another argument that personas and scenarios are often set in an ideal world that does not take into account the idiosyncrasies of real people who use machines—a perfect world in which nothing ever gets spilled on a computer and no one gets interrupted in the middle of his work. They are confined to a world in which nothing bad ever happens, and users do exactly what you want them to do. Well, we know that’s never going to happen.

Overcoming such limitations is a tough challenge for personas to meet. However, you can overcome them if your personas are empathetic, deep, and developed characters—if you take them off a two-dimensional page and breathe some life into them.

A stereotype—which, sadly, too many personas more closely resemble—serves only to act as a shallow mental picture that provides little benefit. That’s why I’ve never liked using the word archetype in reference to personas. This term is too academic and lifeless to adequately describe what a persona should be and accomplish—becoming a deep and dimensioned character.

Where Does the Deep, Empathetic, and Believable Character Begin?

“Designers need to be able to integrate the knowledge they gain from a persona with their existing knowledge and practices to feel at home with it and use it efficiently.”

It’s no wonder UX designers experience difficulties when actually trying to put shallow, lifeless personas and scenarios to use. Designers need to be able to integrate the knowledge they gain from a persona with their existing knowledge and practices to feel at home with it and use it efficiently. In essence, I believe what designers truly need is to go back to the theatrical traditions from which personas came and understand character and story development better. Then they can begin to develop an empathetic version of a deep and believable character—a persona that actually helps them to design the right solution.

Making the mental leap from actors transforming into characters to designers imagining themselves as personas is such a simple one. That is, in essence, where personas began. Alan Cooper, who was the first to lay out a process for developing personas, acknowledges the influence of Method Acting—having read Stanislavsky’s books—on his processes for the development of personas and scenarios. He understands the importance of an empathetic approach to personas.

“One touted benefit of personas is to provide a human face so as to focus empathy on the persons represented by the demographics.”—Alan Cooper

Empathy Comes from Experiencing: Putting Yourself in Their Shoes

“Through role-playing … UX designers can work from the same foundation of truth….”

If we want to get in touch with the empathy we need to design for personas, the best place to begin is with the idea of transformation that provides a foundation for character development—and, therefore, also lays the groundwork for scenario construction. Actors go through a process of transformation in which they begin to truthfully take on a character. Stanislavski, in talking about his process of Method Acting, refers to this moment when actors realize emotional memory—when they have truly become the character—by stating:

“Only by a strongly developed sense of truth may he achieve a single inward beauty in which, unlike conventional theatrical gestures and poses, the true condition of the character is expressed on every one of his attitudes and outward gestures.”—Constantin Stanislavski

From there, the next natural progression is the idea of a sequence of events and the resulting cause-and-effect rhythm of scenario building. As an actor works on an improvisation, he builds scenes around actions—the cause and effect from which a natural dialogue arises. Through role-playing—or what we might call a dramaturgical reading—UX designers can work from the same foundation of truth, building a dialogue through which we can understand a potential computer-human interaction that will become a scenario of use.

The Believable Character Is Flexible and Dynamic

“Your persona will become embodied. It will have life, connection, and be grounded in a reality that lets you—the designer—know what would work for this particular character and design the best solution.”

If we engage in this kind of role-playing and improvisation, amazing things will begin to happen. Your persona will become embodied. It will have life, connection, and be grounded in a reality that lets you—the designer—know what would work for this particular character and design the best solution. It’s easy to recognize this embodied, believable character.

An embodied dramatic persona will be

  • dynamic
  • more life-like than those that exist just on paper
  • transferable to other concrete situations and contexts
  • linked to other characters
  • linked to time

Such a persona will also have

  • multiple traits
  • psychology, physiology, and sociology
  • inner needs and goals
  • interpersonal desires
  • professional ambitions

The role-playing that lets us create embodied characters also leads to the natural development of realistic scenarios—sequences of actions—and authentic stories that provide believability through a truthful interaction, or improvisation, with a software product.

An authentic story encompasses

  • a user’s surroundings—physical space and the available tools
  • the character traits that characterize a user
  • the goals, tasks, and accomplishments that characterize a user

Through these embodied personas and authentic stories, we can better understand the idiosyncrasies of real people—who work in a real, not an idealized world. We can begin to capture the details that let us tell a great story for users and create a design solution. Typically, current methods result in textual or visual outcomes for scenarios, but role-playing in an improvisational manner can enhance the level of detail you can capture for an experience—through

  • trying out, or testing, your ideas
  • discerning important contextual information in the moment
  • gathering and exploring the creative contributions of participants
  • collecting authentic and realistic scenarios that you can rapidly iterate

These are the kinds of personas and scenarios that can meet the tough challenges I outlined earlier—making them valuable in the development of user-centered designs.

How Do You Role-Play?

“One easy exercise that seems to work well for a visual group is to build a collage of things—words, pictures, colors, and so on—that you feel represent the persona and keep them around in our work area for inspiration.”

At this point, you may be wondering how you actually go about doing this role-playing and improvisation to achieve these embodied characters and authentic stories. It’s really not that hard and doesn’t have to be time consuming. It can be as simple as just reading the personas or scenarios out loud and imagining you are really doing what you are saying. You’d be amazed how much insight you can get from even that small endeavor. Check your insights against what you know from your data. Does it feel right? Is it lacking something? Does it spark anything else?

If you want to get a little more involved, there are other easy exercises you can engage in—like using your body to express the emotions or traits of the personas, through more than just facial expressions. This helps you really get an empathetic feel for the persona and may give you some insights into his emotional and psychological states—even responses that have their root in the persona’s value systems. Or you could find an object that is associated with a persona—like an element of a costume or a gadget—and use it to see what that tells you about how the persona uses physical objects. Doing his can help you find the sociological dimension and understand a persona’s character traits. You might even try expressing age—without verbal cues—if that is important to your personas. One easy exercise that seems to work well for a visual group is to build a collage of things—words, pictures, colors, and so on—that you feel represent the persona and keep them around in our work area for inspiration.

If you want to work on building scenarios, or stories, try starting by simply having members of your team tell a story about a persona’s accomplishing a task one word at a time—progressing through the story as you move from person to person. Or you can come up with some isolated sentences about a task your personas are trying to accomplish or a tool they might use, then take 10 minutes to brainstorm a story that incorporates all of the sentences. If you keep yourself grounded in the data you have collected about your users, your stories will reflect reality.

In that recasting of a Shakespeare play I told you about earlier, my character finally clicked for me when I figured out my most difficult relationship among the main characters. When I realized it was much like a relationship I had with one of my male friends in college, I got the role, had clear motivations and objectives, and was able to build a background and dimensions for the character that made it live. Finding one little piece can unlock a wealth of knowledge about a character, or persona. But you won’t find it unless you explore the options and find the storyline that truly works. I most certainly never would have understood my role without doing that. So, take your personas off their pages and embody them. They will live with you and, no doubt, influence your designs in a way that ensures their success with the users your characters, or personas, represent.

References

Cooper, Alan. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. Indianapolis, IN: Sams Publishing, 1999.

Interaction-Design.org. “Personas.” Interaction-Design.org. Retrieved August 26, 2009.

Koppett, Kat. Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership, and Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2001.

Spolin, Viola. Improvisation for the Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. 3rd Edition. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999.

2 Comments

Very interesting. In my PhD thesis on personas, I wrote about character building and persona descriptions. It is in the understanding of what constitutes a character that we can communicate engagement and create believable personas.

Interesting read.

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