Cool stuff and UX resources

< Back to newsletters


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!

reason for using internet

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)

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

Leave a comment here

Reader comments

John Sorflaten

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. 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.

Karl Mochel

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.

Maral Haar

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.

Dave Fondacaro, Pitney Bowes

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, 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.


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.


Sign up to get our Newsletter delivered straight to your inbox

Follow us

Privacy policy

Reviewed: 18 Mar 2014

This Privacy Policy governs the manner in which Human Factors International, Inc., an Iowa corporation (“HFI”) collects, uses, maintains and discloses information collected from users (each, a “User”) of its website and any derivative or affiliated websites on which this Privacy Policy is posted (collectively, the “Website”). HFI reserves the right, at its discretion, to change, modify, add or remove portions of this Privacy Policy at any time by posting such changes to this page. You understand that you have the affirmative obligation to check this Privacy Policy periodically for changes, and you hereby agree to periodically review this Privacy Policy for such changes. The continued use of the Website following the posting of changes to this Privacy Policy constitutes an acceptance of those changes.


HFI may use “cookies” or “web beacons” to track how Users use the Website. A cookie is a piece of software that a web server can store on Users’ PCs and use to identify Users should they visit the Website again. Users may adjust their web browser software if they do not wish to accept cookies. To withdraw your consent after accepting a cookie, delete the cookie from your computer.


HFI believes that every User should know how it utilizes the information collected from Users. The Website is not directed at children under 13 years of age, and HFI does not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from children under 13 years of age online. Please note that the Website may contain links to other websites. These linked sites may not be operated or controlled by HFI. HFI is not responsible for the privacy practices of these or any other websites, and you access these websites entirely at your own risk. HFI recommends that you review the privacy practices of any other websites that you choose to visit.

HFI is based, and this website is hosted, in the United States of America. If User is from the European Union or other regions of the world with laws governing data collection and use that may differ from U.S. law and User is registering an account on the Website, visiting the Website, purchasing products or services from HFI or the Website, or otherwise using the Website, please note that any personally identifiable information that User provides to HFI will be transferred to the United States. Any such personally identifiable information provided will be processed and stored in the United States by HFI or a service provider acting on its behalf. By providing your personally identifiable information, User hereby specifically and expressly consents to such transfer and processing and the uses and disclosures set forth herein.

In the course of its business, HFI may perform expert reviews, usability testing, and other consulting work where personal privacy is a concern. HFI believes in the importance of protecting personal information, and may use measures to provide this protection, including, but not limited to, using consent forms for participants or “dummy” test data.

The Information HFI Collects

Users browsing the Website without registering an account or affirmatively providing personally identifiable information to HFI do so anonymously. Otherwise, HFI may collect personally identifiable information from Users in a variety of ways. Personally identifiable information may include, without limitation, (i)contact data (such as a User’s name, mailing and e-mail addresses, and phone number); (ii)demographic data (such as a User’s zip code, age and income); (iii) financial information collected to process purchases made from HFI via the Website or otherwise (such as credit card, debit card or other payment information); (iv) other information requested during the account registration process; and (v) other information requested by our service vendors in order to provide their services. If a User communicates with HFI by e-mail or otherwise, posts messages to any forums, completes online forms, surveys or entries or otherwise interacts with or uses the features on the Website, any information provided in such communications may be collected by HFI. HFI may also collect information about how Users use the Website, for example, by tracking the number of unique views received by the pages of the Website, or the domains and IP addresses from which Users originate. While not all of the information that HFI collects from Users is personally identifiable, it may be associated with personally identifiable information that Users provide HFI through the Website or otherwise. HFI may provide ways that the User can opt out of receiving certain information from HFI. If the User opts out of certain services, User information may still be collected for those services to which the User elects to subscribe. For those elected services, this Privacy Policy will apply.

How HFI Uses Information

HFI may use personally identifiable information collected through the Website for the specific purposes for which the information was collected, to process purchases and sales of products or services offered via the Website if any, to contact Users regarding products and services offered by HFI, its parent, subsidiary and other related companies in order to otherwise to enhance Users’ experience with HFI. HFI may also use information collected through the Website for research regarding the effectiveness of the Website and the business planning, marketing, advertising and sales efforts of HFI. HFI does not sell any User information under any circumstances.

Disclosure of Information

HFI may disclose personally identifiable information collected from Users to its parent, subsidiary and other related companies to use the information for the purposes outlined above, as necessary to provide the services offered by HFI and to provide the Website itself, and for the specific purposes for which the information was collected. HFI may disclose personally identifiable information at the request of law enforcement or governmental agencies or in response to subpoenas, court orders or other legal process, to establish, protect or exercise HFI’s legal or other rights or to defend against a legal claim or as otherwise required or allowed by law. HFI may disclose personally identifiable information in order to protect the rights, property or safety of a User or any other person. HFI may disclose personally identifiable information to investigate or prevent a violation by User of any contractual or other relationship with HFI or the perpetration of any illegal or harmful activity. HFI may also disclose aggregate, anonymous data based on information collected from Users to investors and potential partners. Finally, HFI may disclose or transfer personally identifiable information collected from Users in connection with or in contemplation of a sale of its assets or business or a merger, consolidation or other reorganization of its business.

Personal Information as Provided by User

If a User includes such User’s personally identifiable information as part of the User posting to the Website, such information may be made available to any parties using the Website. HFI does not edit or otherwise remove such information from User information before it is posted on the Website. If a User does not wish to have such User’s personally identifiable information made available in this manner, such User must remove any such information before posting. HFI is not liable for any damages caused or incurred due to personally identifiable information made available in the foregoing manners. For example, a User posts on an HFI-administered forum would be considered Personal Information as provided by User and subject to the terms of this section.

Security of Information

Information about Users that is maintained on HFI’s systems or those of its service providers is protected using industry standard security measures. However, no security measures are perfect or impenetrable, and HFI cannot guarantee that the information submitted to, maintained on or transmitted from its systems will be completely secure. HFI is not responsible for the circumvention of any privacy settings or security measures relating to the Website by any Users or third parties.

Correcting, Updating, Accessing or Removing Personal Information

If a User’s personally identifiable information changes, or if a User no longer desires to receive non-account specific information from HFI, HFI will endeavor to provide a way to correct, update and/or remove that User’s previously-provided personal data. This can be done by emailing a request to HFI at Additionally, you may request access to the personally identifiable information as collected by HFI by sending a request to HFI as set forth above. Please note that in certain circumstances, HFI may not be able to completely remove a User’s information from its systems. For example, HFI may retain a User’s personal information for legitimate business purposes, if it may be necessary to prevent fraud or future abuse, for account recovery purposes, if required by law or as retained in HFI’s data backup systems or cached or archived pages. All retained personally identifiable information will continue to be subject to the terms of the Privacy Policy to which the User has previously agreed.

Contacting HFI

If you have any questions or comments about this Privacy Policy, you may contact HFI via any of the following methods:
Human Factors International, Inc.
PO Box 2020
1680 highway 1, STE 3600
Fairfield IA 52556
(800) 242-4480

Terms and Conditions for Public Training Courses

Reviewed: 18 Mar 2014

Cancellation of Course by HFI

HFI reserves the right to cancel any course up to 14 (fourteen) days prior to the first day of the course. Registrants will be promptly notified and will receive a full refund or be transferred to the equivalent class of their choice within a 12-month period. HFI is not responsible for travel expenses or any costs that may be incurred as a result of cancellations.

Cancellation of Course by Participants (All regions except India)

$100 processing fee if cancelling within two weeks of course start date.

Cancellation / Transfer by Participants (India)

4 Pack + Exam registration: Rs. 10,000 per participant processing fee (to be paid by the participant) if cancelling or transferring the course (4 Pack-CUA/CXA) registration before three weeks from the course start date. No refund or carry forward of the course fees if cancelling or transferring the course registration within three weeks before the course start date.

Cancellation / Transfer by Participants (Online Courses)

$100 processing fee if cancelling within two weeks of course start date. No cancellations or refunds less than two weeks prior to the first course start date.

Individual Modules: Rs. 3,000 per participant ‘per module’ processing fee (to be paid by the participant) if cancelling or transferring the course (any Individual HFI course) registration before three weeks from the course start date. No refund or carry forward of the course fees if cancelling or transferring the course registration within three weeks before the course start date.

Exam: Rs. 3,000 per participant processing fee (to be paid by the participant) if cancelling or transferring the pre agreed CUA/CXA exam date before three weeks from the examination date. No refund or carry forward of the exam fees if requesting/cancelling or transferring the CUA/CXA exam within three weeks before the examination date.

No Recording Permitted

There will be no audio or video recording allowed in class. Students who have any disability that might affect their performance in this class are encouraged to speak with the instructor at the beginning of the class.

Course Materials Copyright

The course and training materials and all other handouts provided by HFI during the course are published, copyrighted works proprietary and owned exclusively by HFI. The course participant does not acquire title nor ownership rights in any of these materials. Further the course participant agrees not to reproduce, modify, and/or convert to electronic format (i.e., softcopy) any of the materials received from or provided by HFI. The materials provided in the class are for the sole use of the class participant. HFI does not provide the materials in electronic format to the participants in public or onsite courses.