Personas: fact or fiction? Answer: neither, and both

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the 1930s, the German physicist Erwin Schrodinger proposed a thought experiment.

I’ll spare you the detail, as it was an experiment about quantum mechanics, and quantum mechanics is a bit weird. And it involved a cat, in a box, which may, or, may not, have been alive, or dead, or possibly both, or possibly neither.

But the upshot was this: If you have an equal chance of an event happening or not happening, a cat my or may not be alive or dead. And you won’t know which is actually happening until you look, at which point you destroy the possibility of the outcome you did not observe and therefore make the outcome you did observe real.

Schrodinger concluded that, until you actually observe the outcome, the cat is neither dead nor alive, but both.

I told you quantum mechanics was weird.

OK, let’s go back a bit. I’ve heard a few comments from people questioning the value of personas recently. Things like:

Any time we’ve talked about personas we’ve just been making it up. Like he drives this car … or that car. We just make it up.

That’s fair enough. We do make some of it up.

Like Schrodinger’s cat, personas are neither fact nor fiction, dead or alive, but a mixture of both. Though actually neither. And both. At the same time.

Think about it like this: if you’re making a comic book, someone does the narrative, someone does the inking and someone else does the colouring.

When we create personas, we use data to write the narrative and do the inking. Then we use fiction to colour them in.

The colours are not the important parts for us, as designers – it’s not crucial to what we do – but it helps us to empathise with users and design for them and their needs.

For example, we may know from data that a particular target market – let’s say, entrepreneurs running companies less than 2 years old with a particularly good chance of growing strongly (>200% increase in turnover in 2 years) – looks like this:

  • 72% male
  • Over 50% in the 35-45 age bracket
  • 80%+ educated to degree level
  • Over 60% drive to work, and the drive is usually 20-40 minutes
  • >85% own a smartphone

Then it’s entirely reasonable to create a persona to represent this group who is a 42 year-old man who went to university and drives to work.

Unless the kind of car he drives is really important for some reason, it’s fine to “colour in” that part of the persona. It’s just a device to make the completed persona more rounded, believable and – most importantly – someone you can empathise with.

So if you have an irrational dislike of Audi drivers, don’t let your persona drive an Audi. It really doesn’t matter if he drives a Ford. It may be more important that he drives a newish car with an iPod Dock.

It’s reasonable to assume that a man that age will probably have one or more children, so let’s dream up two of them who are aged 12 and 14.

Again, it’s not a crucial detail, but it may provide some insight. Does he drop the kids off at school some or all of the time? Does it add more time pressure to an already busy life?

Does it further limit the opportunity we have to communicate? Or does it open the possibility that he can listen to a podcast after he dropped the kids off because he finds the news media boring?

Does it mean we need more data? If we do, we can get it. Like everything else, we should be agile about personas. Go with what we have, identify gaps and improve/iterate as we go.

But we can still call this persona Simon, while knowing that not every customer this persona represents will actually be called Simon.

I'm a service designer in Scottish Enterprise's unsurprisingly-named service design team. I've been a content designer, editor, UX designer and giant haystacks developer on the web for (gulp) over 25 years.

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