5 Every Day I Write the Book: Use of the First Person Singular in Personas and Scenarios
A persona is a fictitious person, usually based on real information about people of the same type, who designers and other creatives develop and deploy as a way of communicating important information about potential users of a proposed new commodity. Personas are often coupled with scenarios, where the fictitious person is put into a fictitious setting that involves using the possible commodity. We have argued elsewhere (Scaletsky, Basapur, and Ruecker 2014) that there is a family resemblance among designs, prototypes, and scenarios, since each of them is a way of thinking through making about possible preferred futures.
One of the central virtues of all these inventions is their communicative role. As opposed, for example, to some of the traditional documents that describe new commodities or services, such as a definition of requirements document or design specification, stakeholders are usually more able to quickly grasp a proposal in terms of someone doing something with it rather than reading through a comprehensive list of its functions, features, and benefits.
In her classic treatment of personas and scenarios, Goodwin (2009) begins with this principle:
In order for your efforts as a designer to succeed, you must ensure that every member of the product team understands at least the fundamental characteristics and needs of your customers and users, or you’ll spend a lot of time talking in circles. p. 229.
While a persona represents the analysis of human-centered data in a concise form, a scenario stands for some relevant actions that the persona might take with respect to the situation of the design. In that respect, the scenario is a summary of how the values of the persona are expressed through action. The design team will base their work on this fictional person and their actions, so it is important that the persona be a realistic one, with authentic-seeming thoughts and needs. Similarly, the scenario must be representative of the kinds of actions that are likely to take place, properly motivated within the context of the proposed design.
There are a few pitfalls to avoid in developing personas and scenarios. First is that the writer should avoid making them unlikely people. It is not a good idea to give them, for example, comical Dickensian names that highlight some character flaw or idiosyncrasy. Mr Pecksniff, Fanny Biggetywitch and Mrs Bumble are examples of what to avoid. On the other hand, they should not be so bland as to be caricatures in the other direction. Mrs Smith and Mr Jones are, in their way, as unlikely figures as the others.
One reason to avoid these choices is that the team is going to have live with these characters for the duration of the project, and what seems amusing the first few times will get tedious quickly and downright cringe-worthy with time. Another is that a primary use of the personas and scenarios is to communicate about the project with other stakeholders, and there is a risk that the documents will not be understood as a professional deliverable that should be taken seriously and thought about as a genuine description of a potential customer.
Beyond naming, the actions that represent their values should also be chosen to seem more rather than less likely. A humanitarian who donates money to the world wildlife federation is a reasonable depiction, while a humanitarian whose hobby is to fly to the arctic to hug seals, even though the attribute is the same, has crossed the line into being too absurd. The line between interesting and absurd can be a tricky one to negotiate, which is one of the reasons that many personas do come across as stereotypes rather than real depictions of people. Another reason is that most designers do not have sufficient training and experience as writers, which is an expertise that requires as much effort to acquire as design itself.
Finally, it should be possible to describe the character of the person without direct reference to the project at hand. It is unlikely that anyone’s life will revolve around the design, so it is important for the sense of verisimilitude that they be characterised first as a person, then put into the context of use for the scenario.
So a typical human-centered design process will involve getting the brief and doing some research about the people who will eventually be using the design, whether through observations, interviews, intercepts, various forms of self-reporting such as diary studies, photography, video auto-ethnographies and so on. The team analyses the research and produces a set of composite personas, often two or three, and accompanying scenarios.
For example, in a project dealing with the design of promotional materials for an art gallery, a typical persona might look like the following.
Simon Anderson, in his mid-30s, runs a Jeep dealership in a small nearby town of 200,000 people. He has been an avid photographer for many years, taking photos at events for family and friends, and spending time on vacations with his camera getting pictures of wildlife and birds. He is married with three kids, a boy and two girls, all of them still in school. His wife Joanne is the gym teacher at a different school from the one the children attend. Simon and Joanne own their home and have some disposable income. They regularly attend a local church, where Simon sings in the choir.
Analysing the persona, we have a somewhat stereotypical mid-career person who sounds like he came straight out of the 1950s in America. He owns a house, has an intact nuclear family, and expresses religious convictions. His hobby is a harmless one with some possible relevance to visual art, which is of possible interest to a gallery looking for new patrons. Given his other commitments, if he is going to be a donor, it is going to be on a small scale. He may, however, be able to leverage some resources from the company he manages.
Changing things up a very little, we might produce a more contemporary persona with many of the same values.
Simona Anderson, in her mid-30s, runs a Jeep dealership in a small nearby town of 200,000 people. She has been an avid photographer for many years, taking photos at events for family and friends, and spending time on vacations with his camera getting pictures of wildlife and birds. She is married with three kids, a girl and two boys, all of them still in school. Her wife Joanne is the gym teacher at a different school from the one the children attend. Simona and Joanne own their home and have some disposable income. They regularly attend a local church, where Simona sings in the choir.
Because she is in a same-sex marriage, Simona suddenly seems to have more potential as a museum patron and donor. The one less conventional aspect of her life may seem to imply that she could be more open to new opportunities and ideas. Going one step further, we can introduce another distinction that makes Simona’s life more complicated.
…They regularly attend a local church, where Simona sings in the choir. They chose this particular church because it has good accessibility for Joanne’s wheelchair.
Although statistically there is a small chance of Joanne using a wheelchair, and it may not have come up in the relatively small number of people studied to create the persona of Simona, introducing it as a possibility can open up the discussion to accessibility concerns that are not necessarily going to be addressed otherwise (e.g. Jordan 2003).
Having established usually 2-3 personas for any given project, the next step is to write the narrative scenario that shows them carrying out some action of relevance. Ideally, the action should communicate some values of the personas as a way of establishing a motive for what they are doing. In a project on museum promotion, the scenarios might demonstrate various ways that someone like Simona would come across choices of how to spend her spare time, and how she might actually make the choice to go to the museum. If the scenario assumes she is already a person who goes to places like the museum, then the options she faces might relate to how she chooses to become a donor somewhere.
Dancing at the Art Museum
The Anderson’s oldest daughter, Chloe, has often shown an interest in the creative arts. She took ballet classes when she was younger and is keen to learn more about the local arts scene. Simona and Joanne have been watching for suitable arts events in the local newspaper, and periodically will do an online search to see if anything is happening. When someone at church mentioned that the art museum was holding dance classes on Saturday afternoons, they decided to check it out. They weren’t certain at first if Chloe would be old enough, and sure enough, when they arrived, it looked like the other participants were all adults. The instructor, however, was very encouraging, and they had an enjoyable couple of hours themselves. Joanna had never done any dancing with her wheelchair, but it turned out to be not only possible, but also fun. Not least of all, it was such a unique experience to dance among the sculptures. Afterwards, they spent some time in the galleries, and were impressed by the shows that were on. They decided to bring Chloe and the other kids along on a future visit.
Unpacking the scenario, we see three ways that promotional material is accessed: print, online, and word of mouth. There is a suggestion of one approach that museums take to activate the space with small events. The image of the couple wheelchair dancing among sculptures is iconic enough to help readers of the scenario remember the approach.
The examples so far have adopted the conventional approach of being written in the third person omniscient. The writer knows everything about the people and how they act, and there is some distance established for the reader who sees the persona and scenario from this vantage point.
However, if we change both the personas and the scenarios to the first person singular, there is an opportunity to help the reader feel that they are closer to the action, or even that they are learning “secret” information that puts them in a place of privilege among the other characters in the drama.
Simona Anderson, mid-30s
I live in a small town and run a truck dealership. I had two sons from a previous marriage and now have an older step-daughter with my new wife, Joanne. We got together a few years ago when she came in looking for something to replace her old Hyundai. I don’t really believe in love at first sight, but that’s more or less what it was. There was just something about her. She looked very lively and strong. She knows what she likes and I respect that a lot. It was something I had been missing. I’ve always been a camera buff, but after I got divorced, I had kind of let it go. Joanne, however, found the gear one day and wouldn’t leave me alone until I’d shown her some of the pictures, and now I’m back out in the field, enjoying it more than ever. She even mentioned it to the pastor at the church, and now they are scheming to get me to donate something to the annual auction.
With this persona, there are many more personal details, and there is also a clearer sense of the underlying values of the person. Simona doesn’t have to say that images are something she values, but she talks about seeing, and she talks about her photography as a pleasure she had lost and regained. She seems quietly pleased that her wildlife photos might have a place in the church’s fundraising activities.
Since one purpose of the persona is to convey a likeness to the design team, an interesting exercise is to have someone read it out loud. The earlier, conventional version is much less riveting than the one where the reader is essentially role-playing the woman.
The same is true for the scenario. To get the maximum benefit of the approach, it is useful to also write it from the first person singular, and to write more than one, so that different perspectives on the activity can be contrasted. This strategy has the added value of encouraging the design team to think of the problem from multiple perspectives, and to recognize that access to understanding is a privilege that comes with getting to know the users well enough that they can communicate their actual viewpoints.
Joanne: dancing at the art museum
I can’t believe how well things have been going. When Simona and I decided to get married, I was worried at first. We were both coming out of bad situations, and I just wasn’t sure if we were ready yet. Then there were the kids. Chloe is a great kid, but she can be a bit direct at times, and I worried that she might be too much for the boys to handle. But they seem to be handling themselves okay. It turned out that Sim was the one who was having trouble fitting in. She is always at work, and when she is home she seems to be somehow emotionally distant. I hadn’t even told her about the dancing lessons I was taking. I just needed to get out of the house. But then Ben, the instructor, mentioned he was starting this thing down at the Art Museum, and I thought, okay, there’s a chance to get out of the house. Even when we got there, I still wasn’t sure that Sim would be okay with it, but I’d coached Ben not to let on that he knew me, and I think it went all right, at least for the first time. We’ll have to see how it goes.
Simona: dancing at the art museum
I hate to say it, but Chloe has been driving me nuts lately! I don’t know if it is just because she is a teenager now or if it is something going on at school or what, but she has decided that she is a “creative,” and by “creative” she seems to mean she can wander around with her head in the clouds. She doesn’t do her homework. She doesn’t do her chores. She doesn’t want to eat with the rest of us. So I figured okay, if Joanne doesn’t want to do anything about it, then I will. I started watching for ways that we can put Chloe in front of some real creatives, and see if that can help. Archie and Phyllis down at the church mentioned that they’ve been going over to the art museum on the weekends, so I thought maybe that would help. I hadn’t realized it was for dancing classes, but whatever. Jo and I went on Saturday to check it out, and I was surprised by how much fun we had. Now if I can just get Chloe away from her phone long enough to have a conversation with her, maybe we can figure out how to get her over there, too. Maybe she would respond to a text.
This pair of scenarios, even though they are describing the same activity, are more dissimilar than similar. For Joanne, it is all about arranging bonding time with her wife, getting her away from her preoccupation with work, and breaking her out of some perceived emotional distance. For Simona, the emotional focus of the activity is her step-daughter Chloe, who she perceives as a problem. Neither of them make the connection between Simona’s photography and the activity in the art gallery, which is just in the background from the persona.
However, we do have additional elements that might be of interest to the gallery designers. First, there is the idea that activities at the gallery could serve multiple purposes, from bonding between couples to getting the kids out of the house. Second, there is the idea that people involved in managing the activities might themselves have their own networks, as Ben the dancer does, that could be leveraged to bring new people to the museum.
Writing personas and scenarios is a well-established design method that is often part of the human-centered approach to design. Unlike lists of features, functions, and benefits, personas and scenarios help to anchor the design team with names, descriptions, and narratives that place the humanity of the user at the center of the design process.
However, in conventional approaches, the personas and scenarios are written in the third person omniscient, which may place an unnecessary distance between the design team and the representatives of the people they are designing for. The design team is looking down, as it were, onto the people and their actions, from a privileged position above them.
By writing instead in the first person singular, the cognitive and affective distances are reduced, the designer is placed on a more equal footing with the user (rather than viewing the situation from a god-like, all-knowing perspective), and there is an opportunity to make multiple perspectives apparent.
Further, the performative reading of the personas and scenarios that is possible with the first-person accounts can make a significant difference in the direct experience of the rest of the design team. It also adds a role-playing element for the reader that can be enjoyable, as they take on the persona and tell a story about an activity.