From Personas to Stories: Creating Better Tools for Design and Marketing

Design ethnography takes the position than human behavior and the ways in which people construct meaning of their lives are contextually mitigated, highly variable and culturally specific. on the central premise of ethnography is that it assumes that we must first discover what people actually do and why they do it before we can assign to their actions and behaviors to design changes or innovation. The ultimate goal is to uncover pertinent insights about a population’s experience and translate their actions, goals, worldview and perspectives as they directly relate to a brand, object or activity, and the role that these pieces play with regards to interactions with their environment. Often, the information results in a large-scale, broad document, but it also often results in the development of personas.

The idea is that personas bring customer research to life and make it actionable, ensuring the right decisions are made by a design or marketing team based on the right information. The approach to persona development typically draws from both quantitative and qualitative tools and methodologies, but because of the very personal nature of ethnography, the methodology often leads the charge. The use of ethnographic research helps the creation of a number of archetype (fictions, in the most positive sense) that can be used to develop products that deliver positive user experiences. They personalize the information and allow designers and marketers to think about creating around specific individuals.

But there are problems with personas. Don’t get me wrong, I believe personas can be useful and help design teams. But I also believe they can reduce the human condition to a series of attributes and lose the spirit of what personas are designed to do. First, in terms of scientific logic, because personas are fictional, they have no clear relationship to real customers and therefore cannot be considered scientific. So much for the science.

For practical implementation, personas often distance a team from engagement with real users and their needs by reducing them to a series of parts. The personas, then, do the opposite of what they are intended to, forcing design teams down a path that gives the illusion of user-centricity while actually reflecting the interpretations or the individual designers. Creating hypothetical users with real names, stories and personalities may seem unserious and whimsical to some teams within an organization and be, consequently, dismissed as so much fluff. But by far, the biggest problem, at least to my way of seeing things, is that while we want to use personas to humanize potential customers and users, we in fact reduce them to objects and a laundry list of actions, personality quirks and minimalist descriptions.

I’m not advocating the dismissal of personas, but I am suggesting that perhaps there are alternatives. One place to start is to admit we are writing fiction when we construct these tools and expand upon that notion. We should be adding to the mix humanistic narratives. Customer novellas, so to speak. It requires more time and effort, both on the part of the person/people creating them as well as those using them, but it also gives greater depth and insight into the needs, beliefs and practices of the people for whom we design and to whom we market. Rather than relying exclusively on a dry report or a poster with a list of attributes.  In this model, the idea is to create a short story in which actors (the eventual personas) engage with each other, a wider range of people, and a range of contexts. Doing so allows us to see interactions and situations that lead to greater insights. It allows us to look at symbolic and functional relationships and tease out elements that get at the heart of the fictional characters we create.

Why is that important? Because it does precisely what personas are meant to do but typically fail at – provide depth and characterization, establish a sense of personal connection between designers and users and provide breakthrough insight and inspiration. Anyone who has read history vs. historical novels is familiar with the idea. It is easy to reduce Julius Caesar to a series of exploits and personality traits, but in doing so we lose the feel for who the man was. A historical novel, in contrast, adds flavor by injecting conversation, feelings, motivations and interactions. We walk away with a feeling for who he was and what affect he had on others, good and bad.

Imagine developing a persona for Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. We could say the following and attribute it to all Hobbits: Frodo is enamored by adventure but frightened by it. He loves mushrooms, has no wife, is extremely loyal to his friends and will work at any task he is given until it is done, regardless of the difficulty or potential for personal harm. He disdains shoes and has a love of waist coats.

There’s nothing wrong with this description, but for anyone who had read the trilogy or even seen the movies, the shortcomings are obvious. We miss the bulk of Frodo’s personality. In exploring the novel, we come to develop a rich understanding of Frodo, a deep understanding of his motivations and personality and his relationship with other members of the party, including the Ring.

For the literalists out there, I am not suggesting we create anything as vast as a novel, particularly one as expansive as The Lord of the Rings, but I am suggesting that we move beyond attributes and create stories that more fully develop the people behind the personas. Several pages of engaging writing is sufficient. Not only does it provide deeper insights, but it engages the reader more fully, inspiring them to go beyond the “data” and explore a wider array of design, brand and marketing options. Again, it isn’t meant to replace personas (or the research report), but to add to it. It requires more effort and time on the part of the person creating it as well as the person consuming it, something people are often disinclined to do, but the end result is better design, greater innovation and a more complete vision of what could be.

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3 thoughts on “From Personas to Stories: Creating Better Tools for Design and Marketing

  1. I tend to agree with your reflections on personas, although I think narratives have their own challenges. As someone who has, and still does, use both I find they do a better job providing a foundation or gesalt of the consumer/experience being described. Often the audience has trouble determining what to focus on because such forms tend to lack hierarchy. The audience can latch onto what they think (or want) to be important, rather than what was intended. Because of this we often use structured visual frameworks (unique to a given project) that include hierarchy and relationship as clear elements.

    Generally though, I like your suggestions. I think the principles we follow aren’t too far off. We, at Lextant, use 4 principles when we translate insights for our clients. (1) Meaningful – There is a clear connection to the data. (2) Aspirational – Tells a story of the future. (3) Actionable – Provides concrete descriptions of the design attributes needed. (4) Inspirational – Focuses design efforts, but does not prescribe solutions.

  2. Pingback: Problems & Potentials of Personas « ethnoinsight

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