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UI Design Newsletter – April 2012

Apala Lahiri ChavanDo Personas Always Have to be ‘Good’?

HFI Writer Apala Lahiri Chavan, MA, MSc, CUA, CXA
shows how all personas are not equal. She discusses designing for rounded users and extreme characters.

Eric SchafferMessage from the CEO

Dr. Eric Schaffer, Ph.D., CUA,CXA, CPE, Founder and CEO of HFI offers practical advice.

Do Personas Always Have to be ‘Good’?

Interaction Relabelling and Extreme Characters: Methods for Exploring Aesthetic Interactions, DIS 2000, J.P. Djajadiningrat, Delft University of Technology, ID-StudioLab: W.W. Gaver Royal College of Art, Computer Related Design, London: J.W. Frens c/o Delft University of Technology ID-StudioLab

If you have been in the field of User Experience Design, then it is very likely you are familiar with the use of personas in the design process. Introduced by Alan Cooper in 1998, the use of personas has proven to be immensely popular with professionals who follow a User Centered Design approach.

What you may not be so familiar with is the parallel that Alan Cooper drew with theater when describing the use of the persona technique.

Our scenario process has been described as very like method acting, in which the actor must inhabit the character, knowing what he knows and feeling his feelings.

This idea of looking at the art of performance for techniques that can make user experience more engaging has been an interesting area and deserves a newsletter just on that topic. Who can forget Brenda Laurel’s pioneering book Computers as Theater, where she seeks inspiration from Aristotle’s Poetics?

However, the specific question of making personas more engaging and ‘rounded’ has also been a topic of research and has yielded some interesting concepts.

Are all personas created equal?

There is no doubt that the use of personas in the user centered design process, created from user research and marketing data and then used as a representation of the user, greatly helps guide designers in communicating to all stakeholders. However, are all personas created equal?

The answer is a resounding NO.

What then makes some personas more real and engaging and hence more useful for the next step in the design process?

Consider this from the script of Thelma and Louise (as it appears in Lene Nielsen’s paper, From user to character – an investigation into user-descriptions in scenarios):

LOUISE is a waitress in a coffee shop. She is in her early-thirties, but too old to be doing this. She is very pretty and meticulously groomed, even at the end of her shift. She is slamming dirty coffee cups from the counter into a bus tray underneath the counter. It is making a lot of RACKET, which she is oblivious to. There is COUNTRY MUZAK in the b.g., which she hums along with.
THELMA is a housewife. It’s morning and she is slamming coffee cups from the breakfast table into the kitchen sink, which is full of dirty breakfast dishes and some stuff left from last night’s dinner which had to soak. She is still in her nightgown. The TV is ON in the b.g. From the kitchen, we can see an incomplete wallpapering project going on in the dining room, an obvious do-it- yourself attempt by Thelma. (Khouri 1990)

The Rounded User

As Lene Nielsen points out,

When I first read the script of Thelma and Louise I was drawn into the story. I immediately imagined the characters as real persons and I was so interested in what happened to them that I continued reading until the end. As I read, I tried to figure out in my imagination why Thelma and Louise acted as they did and what did motivate them, a long time before the script gave me any clues. This script is what, in movie terms, is called a good read.
When I later came to work with and study scenarios, I was surprised to find that the scenarios never presented the users as vivid characters. At best they were stereotypes and made me laugh, at worst they only existed as a name.
It raised some questions from both a writer’s and a reader’s point of view:
  • How can you predict the goals and actions of a user when you don’t know anything about the user as a person?
  • Why use descriptions of users that the reader can’t engage in?
  • What does it take to write a good description of a user? Written or visual.

And she goes on to advise that the personas should not be the flat characters that they often seem to be but should be more well-rounded, just as in theater and films.

Looking for the rounded character will involve looking for:
  • Multiple traits.
  • Psychology, physiology, and sociology.
  • Inner needs and goals, interpersonal desires, and professional ambitions.

Design for Extreme Characters

Taking this need to create personas that represent real people, with all their quirks and eccentricities and also their varied professions, to an extreme, is the technique of Design for Extreme Characters.

Djajadiningrat, Gaver and Frens, in their paper Interaction Relabelling and Extreme Characters: Methods for Exploring Aesthetic Interaction present the case of creating a persona and resulting scenarios when designing a PDA.

The scenario may be very detailed in terms of lifestyle. Jack likes wearing Hugo Boss suits and driving his BMW. However, from an emotional point of view Jack seems shallow and completely out of touch with the real world — apart from work, Jack is always keen to go to his next appointment, he is never tired, never bored. He does not seem to have any bad character traits either; he is nice and serious. This is reflected in the roles the product supports. The appearance of and the interaction with the resulting PDA tells the story of Jack and his relationship with the product. While the user does not know about the scenario, he is still confronted with Jack’s values, since the product’s role supports Jack. Designing for prototypical characters such as Jack ignores the full spectrum of human emotions; it only addresses those recognized as socially or culturally desirable.

And so they move away from 'nice and normal Jack' and instead create characters that have unusual occupations and also unusual emotional attitudes. Hence they are able to include negative or undesirable character traits that would normally not be included in a persona description.

The three extreme characters that they describe are: a Drug Dealer, the Pope, and a Polyandrous Twenty-Year Old.

The Drug Dealer
The Drug Dealer is a powerful person who manages rather than commits crimes. To cover up his illegal dealings, he is also involved in legal activities. The Drug Dealer is highly aware of his place in the drug trade hierarchy. Above him in rank are the big players from whom he buys; below him are the drugrunners to whom he sells. It is a rough world and, in response, the Drug Dealer has adopted an opportunistic attitude in his pursuit of money and power.

The Pope
The Pope is a person who is very powerful in theory, though in many ways his actions and emotions are prescribed. He is very much restricted by protocol. Frens' fictitious Pope saw his formal appointments as tedious and valued his leisure time very highly. He enjoyed a stroll in the Vatican gardens and the conversations with his favorite nun. When it came to his forma ltasks, the Pope needed a little encouragement from time to time. The Pope knew that he could get in trouble if he did not fulfill his formal duties. In a sense, he viewed his negotiations with the appointment manager to gain leisure time as a kind of game.

Hedonistic Polyandrous Twenty-Year-Old
This is a fun-loving woman who has a great many social contacts, including several boyfriends. She has a normal day job as a school teacher. But what she looks forward to all day is her free time after work and during the weekends. Full of energy, she is always looking to have a good time. Going out can be nerve-racking though, as she needs to be careful about boyfriends meeting each other. She needs people around her, as she is not very good at amusing herself on her own.

They then present the unique attitude each of these characters has towards appointments which then drives the concepts. In this case, the concepts (for PDAs) were the Drug Dealer’s rings, the Pope’s stubborn pen, and the Twenty-Year-Old’s appointment fan!

Sometimes Bad is Good!

The revelation and inclusion of ‘extreme’ traits, emotions, and resulting requirements that are not normally part of a persona description made it possible for the designers to think of concepts that would not have surfaced had they used ‘normal’ and ‘safe’ personas. This ability to enable the UX designer to transcend one’s comfort zone in terms of who and what one is familiar with is a major benefit of using extreme characters in the design process. The result is a broadening of the ideation landscape and the emergence of a richer set of solutions that take into account the complexity and contradictory nature of human emotions.

As the authors put it, “The technique reminds us that in order to design humane products, these ‘undesirable’ emotions and character traits cannot be disregarded as they are, after all, what makes u shuman.”

As a parting thought, I can’t help but wonder what would happen to extreme characters in a cross-cultural situation?


Cooper, Alan. The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. SAMS, Indianapolis. (1999)

Djajadiningrat J.P., Gaver W.W.,FrensJ.W., Interaction Relabelling and Extreme Characters: Methods for Exploring Aesthetic Interactions, (DIS 2000)

Khouri, C. Thelma & Louise, (1990)

Laurel, Brenda. Computers as theater. Reading, MA: Addison- Wesley. (1991)

Nielsen Lene, From user to character – an investigation into user-descriptions inscenarios, Department of Informatics, Copenhagen Business School, (DIS2002)

Thanks, Apala for this inspiring review. Good "characters" are good not because they are "good", but because they are memorable. This is what extreme personas offer. It's food for the imagination. But...as you point out, even the extreme character has needs with which we can all identify. So--what we just learned, is that the character is not the message. It's their needs and goals that are the message. The character is the vehicle...and we all like snazzy vehicles that feed our imagination.

John Sorflaten

Whenever I've seen personas used the details tend to get in the way more than be useful. It's useful to think that one set of users have no SQL experience, another set is willing to edit and another is comfortable creating from scratch. It is not useful or relevant what they wear, where they are from or what they think of super heroes. The first set of traits can be designed against because it is a meaningful distinction between sets of people. The latter are personal and not likely to reflect an realistic difference across any spectrum of users let alone in the context of a particular design. I would say in fact that they detract from helping us design, because their specificity blinds us to to the variety of ways different likes/dislikes/interests interplay across a population.

Karl Mochel

I am working in the research unit of a company developing medical devices and safety equipment. In comparison to the PDA example, our users are experts in their domains and have a high knowledge we (as developers) don't have. Even though some of us are experts in certain clinical (or safety) areas, e.g., ventilation of patients, our perspective is completely different than the perspective of the user. We do even have project managers and developers who have been firefighters or nurses themselves, but still they are not very representative for "the users", and they can't be involved in every project.

For me it is hard to get a basic understanding of the work, the domain, the tasks, goals and processes at all, and personas help me to conclude what I observe or learn when I visit users at their workplaces. Probably our personas lack the juice mentioned above, but I still find them very valuable because, compared to consumer electronics (like PDAs) or websites, we can't start based on our own experiences and expectations. Our personas include goals, tasks, typical problems, traits and attitudes as we observed them, and they are much more complex than the Jane example. Still they lack the "juice", and I am not sure we will ever include such strong "additional" diversity, as we have more diversity in the users we observe than we wish for. At the moment our goal is rather to reduce the number of our personas, and find more common bases than to add extremes.

Maral Haar

The content of the persona should reflect the relevant characteristics of the audience you're designing for, and in some cases the audience you're not designing for (negative personas). If you're designing BtoB productivity software then the examples you cite are relevant (SQL experience, etc). Basically, in the BtoB world personas should include information about the work the person does. If however you're designing consumer products and/or marketing materials for consumer products, then personal information is very important. If you're going to appeal to the desires and emotions of a market segment, then you may very well want to know what they wear,

Dave Fondacaro, Pitney Bowes

where they are from, what they think of superheroes, and yes, whether or not they have a cat. I have seen personas fail to add value and I've seen them work very well. It boils down to the skill of the UX designer in understanding what the relevant information is to include in the personas.

I hear what you're saying though, too often in the BtoB world I've seen personas with information about the car that Peter drives, or the fact that he has two kids in college. That info doesn't add value and can actually be quite a turn-off to the people it's supposed to enlighten. Keep your personas short and include only relevant information or they won't be adopted by the broader team.

I fail to see how any of the ostensibly "bad boy" personas complete a niche left vacant by Schaffer's so-called safe personas other than they're perhaps somewhat more piquant.

How does a drug dealer differ from your prototypical Wall Street global investment banker; uncertain the difference is that great. Same with the Pope, how is he any different than any other publicly notable high net worth individual who enjoys playing power games with his staff?

In all, the need to develop 'extreme' persona strikes me as off key as it cements in the mind of product and service developers and providers the notion that people are in any way categorizable insofar as a minority of their traits are concerned when set against a spectrum of socially acceptable traits and desires.

See author's response to this comment

Thank you Apala, I really enjoyed reading this article. In my opinion design is in the details. and when you have a well fleshed out persona, the chances of creating unique designs that pay attention to detail is much higher. I do agree of course, that it does boil down to the skill of the UX designer and the way he extracts or processes this data from the personas is equally important.


Reader comments on this and other articles.
Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer
Eric Schaffer

I've never been a fan of persona based design. I think personas are simplifications of a rich set of user profile data. We have made them so that we can give amateurs something simple to think about. And, most certainly, the personas I have seen have been pretty simple ("Jane is 35, feels awkward around technology, and has a cat").

But perhaps we have an angle where a persona can be more. Where a persona can have some juice. And perhaps those personas can help us in more serious design challenges, such as strategy and innovation. Perhaps personas will now be interesting and therefore worthwhile.

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