Personas sometimes get a bit of bad press. If they are done right they can be an invaluable design aid, but if they are done badly they can be nothing more than ugly stereotypes. We’re looking to make personas a core part of the way we design services so we’ve been doing some thinking around how we can ensure that we avoid the bad persona pitfalls.

When we talk about personas we talk in terms of archetypes rather than stereotypes. That's important because there are some key distinctions to make between the two.

Just as a smell or flavour can trigger a memory of our childhood, personas should remind us of real people we have met. Good personas foster empathy, bring research to life and allow us to engage with customers at every stage of the design process, whether they are in the room with us or not.

There is lots of evidence out there to support the use of good quality personas in design and innovation. Organisations like The Well Told Story Group are using archetypes to great effect in order to improve social outcomes in Africa and have provided part of our inspiration to reinvigorate the use of personas here at Bromford.

In order to ensure that our personas are good archetypes we have developed a set of overarching principles to guide us:

By focusing our work around our guiding principles we are able to create personas which tell a story and bring our research to life.

We use personas as a way to communicate qualitative research about people who we have shadowed, interviewed or observed in some way. Personas help us to understand people in a wider context than our services alone. A picture paints a thousand words so we are trying to get better at using photographs of people and their things in order to compliment our research and inform the stories we are curating.

In order to draw together a consolidated summary of the people we have met we depict a persona as an individual person. However, in fact personas are not a representation of a single individual but rather a synthesised set of observations representing many real people. Personas help us to understand people in greater depth than data might do on its own, helping us understand why people behave in certain ways, and helping us uncover their goals, motivations and concerns. 

We are really protective of our persona principles, especially #3 - Personas must be based on qualitative data (gathered by us). The difference between a stereotype and an archetype is research. Personas are bad when professionals create them from the comfort of their office with little or no evidence to back them up. 


Personas are just one way we take ourselves from a position of thinking to a position of knowing. 


Thinking something is true without the evidence to back it up leads to bad personas and bad personas lead to bad design decisions, so it’s important to build personas based on facts and evidence. I remember seeing a tweet from Carrie Bishop which summarised this point and inspired this image.

Good personas are built on rich insights not conjecture. We believe that good personas have several key characteristics:

  • Good personas reflect patterns observed in research
  • Good personas focus on what is currently happening
  • Good personas are realistic, not idealised and assume the attributes of several real people
  • Good personas help us understand:
    • Context
    • Behaviours
    • Attitudes
    • Needs
    • Challenges
    • Goals
    • Motivations

Good personas provide value in a variety of ways:

  • Good personas can help validate or disprove a design decision
  • Good personas can help us decide which direction to take
  • Good personas provide agile learning not statistical viability
  • Good personas provide inspiration during idea generation
  • Good personas give voice to the end user and foster empathy

In order to gather the fact based evidence we need to design a set of personas we use observation and conversation based around a topic guide, rather than a rigid set of questions, such as a questionnaire. Often the most insightful conversation happens after the questions have been answered and our conversations are as much about picking up on the stuff that isn't said as they are about the stuff that is.

We are currently looking to create a new set of personas to support our starting well work and I’ll blog about our progress as the work gets under way.

@Simon_Penny

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Cover image by Kriz Gonzalez

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