Personas: A human face

For me, one of the exciting things about my senior project is that I’m creating something that I would like to use. I can think in terms of what want as a jumping-off point, even if I am not – as UX wisdom always emphasizes – THE user or customer. Of course, this is why the exercise of creating personas is useful and fruitful. My own methodology this time was as follows: along with a name and a face, I wrote a narrative that described a situation/problem that the person faced, one that provided the context for them potentially using my web app. After that I created a series of…fragments. Bits of information about them I thought might be relevant. I borrowed from UX Lady, a list of instructor suggestions, and my own ideas about what kinds of things I wanted to know about people as musicians, technology users, problem-solvers, and personalities.

The Question of Difference

For me, what was most useful about personas was the way they encouraged me to think of difference. What kinds of differences between individuals are relevant to my project? For example, the question of people’s differing digital habits and attitudes is usually pretty important in our world for obvious reasons. Does my intended audience have the skills, the interest, and the determination to figure out powerful but complicated processes for recording their musical development? Or will it need to be simple? Do they use social media? If so, how?

Then there are personality differences that affect how people approach problem-solving and sociality, among other things. I was somewhat familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators previously, but it was fun to research them more deeply and try them out as tools for thinking about how people might learn, and how people might interact.

Finally, for my particular project, people’s differences as musicians seemed crucially important. Thinking about ways to separate out the strands of someone’s musicality did more than simply suggest different musical skills that a user might want to improve: it made me think about different musical practices and traditions, and how they might shape an online music community (in other words, I got to put my ethnomusicologist hat back on for a bit!). For example, conversations among the folk music enthusiasts at fiddlehangout.com had similarities, but also very substantial differences, compared to those of the classically-trained violinist.com community. They reflected different music-making environments, different habits and assumptions, different ways of learning and teaching, different ways of measuring oneself as a musician. I don’t think for a minute that my personas caught all the nuances, but they led me to the questions that led me to explore these communities.

What a Persona Is and Is Not For

So what kind of tool is a persona? This was my question when I was first introduced to the concept, and there seems to be more than one professional opinion on the subject. Take this short post, and the response at the end. The former fears that these fictional personas are meant to represent a definitive and all-encompassing understanding of a given demographic, and rejects them in favour of tools that model behaviours rather than detailed – but fictional – individuals. The commenter counters that personas are actually meant to create empathy, to help designers see users as whole individuals rather than as an abstract set of needs and behaviours. They’re supposed to be believable people, not definitive guides to an entire demographic. They’re human faces that bring your research to life (without the awkwardness of putting actual people on the spot).

I think that empathy is important, and not just in the touchy-feely, makes-me-feel-like-a-better-human way (although…yeah, it does). But also because empathy opens up a deeper, richer, and potentially extremely useful set of questions and opportunities. It reminds me of how frustrated I’d sometimes get with my music-major students studying 20th century Western music history: when it came to music they didn’t enjoy, I’d hear, “I just don’t understand how anyone could like this music!” And I often felt it was said with overtones of, it’s not worth my time to understand either. But…clearly someone does like this music! Someone thought it was worth creating! Aren’t you at all curious as to why??? How do you expect to understand people who are different from you if you don’t start with that curiosity? I’m not sure that you can get to most interesting, most revelatory questions (let alone their answers) any other way.

This, I think, is the value of personas. They invite us to think about audiences and users, not in the abstract, but as people who are like and unlike ourselves, with whom we need to find a way to connect.

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