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The Pitfalls of Personas in Design Research

Jenny Cole

Design Research Associate

The key to empathetic, human-centered design is to understand the needs and behaviors of your end-user. While many methods can be used to understand user behavior and thinking related to the investigated problem (and its potential solutions), archetypes, and even more specifically, personas, are among the most popular. An “archetype” is a model that represents a particular group’s behaviors and thinking; a persona takes this concept one step further to carefully create a fictional character who embodies this user type. These design tools, in theory, aim to remove the guesswork as to how the end-user will think and behave. But is it really that simple? In our research, we’ve come across common misuse of archetypes and personas, as well as some potential pitfalls in their employment.

Archetypes and personas should be an output of your research, not the guide for your recruit.

While archetypes and personas can be a useful tool for communicating ideas and inspiring empathy, one should refrain from introducing them too early in the design process. Hypothesizing about archetypes prior to recruiting or allowing preconceived notions about the “buckets” your participants will fall into can skew your study. When misused, archetypes can become contrivances that lead you to unconsciously confirm your hypotheses, rather than tools for communicating insights gained from unbiased research. It can be helpful to think through potential use cases in your recruit (which can allow you to find participants with specific experiences, help ensure a diverse recruit, etc.), but flexibility in recruiting is key. By strictly adhering to early ideas of what a participant “should” be, one risks missing out on vital insights from potential respondents, simply because they did not fit cleanly into a predetermined box.

There are often discrepancies between how participants present themselves and their real-life habits and behaviors.

During the recruiting process, it can be helpful to gather practical information about your potential participants as well as preliminary data about their behavior to ensure the questions you ask in the next steps of your research are applicable. However, avoid the temptation to make any assumptions or predictions about your participants by implementing archetypes at this early stage. Interpretation of screening questions can be so subjective that the output can sometimes prove meaningless. For example, if you were to ask participants, “Do you consider yourself someone who leads a healthy lifestyle?”, you could likely expect a range of answers. One participant may count calories and start every day with a morning run but feel that there’s room for improvement in her personal health. Another could neglect exercise altogether while opting for healthier snacks, and thus, consider his lifestyle healthy.

Archetypes can fail to capture the nuance and complexity of a user’s behavior and thinking.

One must remember that not everyone will fit into a single archetype cleanly and without overlap; there’s too much complexity to the human experience to expect that. If archetypes and personas are used in the design process, they should not be borrowed from past studies, or worse, generalized by industry. To gain an accurate, untarnished view of the problem you’re investigating and develop tailored solutions that meet the needs of each unique individual, one must allow the participants to take the lead. If you’re operating on assumptions about the groups you expect individuals to fall into, are you really giving them the space they deserve to fully be their unique, nuanced selves?

Be flexible and willing to change as you learn more about your participants. In other words, be ready to throw out your archetypes altogether.

As inherently flawed human beings, it might be impossible for us to eliminate all preconceived notions or assumptions about outcomes. However, by making a concerted effort to stay flexible, receptive, and open-minded, we can keep the user at the center of our research and design as intended. With learning must come change and the evolution of our ideas; that means not only being willing to adapt archetypes throughout the design process to mirror your findings, but to throw them out altogether.

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