5 design projects using non-human personas to give nature a voice

A deer paused in a forest and staring straight at the camera—Photo by Scott Carroll on unsplash.com
Photo by Scott Carroll on Unsplash

Over the last few years, the discussion has grown about non-human personas — personas representing natural environments and animals for designers to consider their needs as well as humans.

But how can digital designers actually use the needs of a plant, animal, or environment to inform their design decisions to make their digital experience have more planet-friendly impacts?

I’m still working out my own practices, so I interviewed digital and service designers from Germany, UK, and US who use non-human personas, analyzed the detailed work of other academic and business projects, and included insight from one of my own projects, to learn from their use of non-human personas for informing design decisions.

Each project was analysed to understand:

  • Frequency of use
  • How the personas were used to inform design decisions
  • Examples of the actual design changes made from assessing non-human needs (with a focus on digital design)

The projects analysed:

  1. Web and mobile projects — Sandy Daehnert (Interviewed) | Germany
  2. Urban digital interface design — Martin Tomitsch, Joel Fredericks, Dan Vo, Jessica Frawley, Marcus Foth | Australia
  3. E-commerce UX — Damien Lutz | Australia
  4. Service design workshop experience — Victor Udoewa (Interviewed) | US
  5. Introducing non-human personas to clientsFiona Tout and Ben Serbutt (Interviewed) | UK

Sandy Daehnert

Web & Mobile Designer | Germany

Sandy Daehnert is a UX researcher, UX architect, and UI designer, based in Germany, and who has “a passion for (ecological and social) sustainability, mental health, accessibility, and inclusion”.

Sandy also founded www.greentheweb.com in 2019 from which she generously shares her experiences, knowledge, tools, and resources.

Through her approach and website, Sandy supports both ‘designers and companies in creating ecologically and socially sustainable websites, apps, online shops, and other digital products”.

Sandy uses non-human personas to:

  • To make more ecologically sustainable UX/UI choices
  • To find out what’s important to talk about in digital products in terms of sustainability.
  • To bring more intention and purpose into the project (inside and outside).
  • To reaffirm to stakeholders how important green UX/UI is and to ensure her process stays on that path

Sandy generally creates her personas as documents before the design process begins, and then refers to them often along the research, design, iteration, implementation, and analysis process.

Using the personas

Non-human stakeholders: Sandy has created and used personas for various non-humans such as Mother Nature, Cologne as a city, the Atlantic Ocean, and Thuringian forest.

Example of an Environment Centered Persona for “Mother Earth” from Sandy Daehnert
Example of an Environment Centered Persona for “Mother Earth” from Sandy Daehnert

Frequency: Use at all steps along the design process — research, ideation, design, iteration, implementation, and analysis. Also, encourage the business to use them beyond the design process, such as in marketing and business decision meetings.

Assessing design impacts on persona needs:

1. Connect with the non-human

Connect with your specific non-human(s) using an imagination exercise to empathise. Consider:

  • Their needs
  • Their desires
  • Their relationship with humanity (what they give and take from each other)

2. Review the design and ask yourself questions about how the persona’s needs, desires, etc, are impacted by the design.

  • How is the persona negatively impacted and how can this be reduced?
  • How are they positively impacted and how can this be enhanced?
  • What else can be done to nurture the non-human?

Examples of non-human persons informing design decisions

  • Web copy — In a project where Sandy created a persona for the city of Cologne, this influenced how the digital product communicated, deepening the conversation and intent on the website
  • UI design — integrating donation options in an online shop for projects supporting the non-human

Martin Tomitsch, Joel Fredericks, Dan Vo, Jessica Frawley, Marcus Foth

Interaction Design Students and Educators | Australia

Exploring how non-human personas could be used as a means of including nature in the design of smart cities, these three projects were collated by Martin Tomitsch into a research article for the Interaction Design and Architecture(s) Journal:

  1. Smart urban furniture
  2. The external interface of an autonomous vehicle
  3. Visualised data interface capturing citizen opinion

The first project allowed for experimentation with non-human personas and informed the development of a non-human personas framework, which was then applied hypothetically to the other two projects.

Project 1 (Smart urban furniture)

Non-human stakeholders: Possums, plants, birds, bees

The persona representation for Beans the possum based on secondary data collated from reports / Photo via Wikimedia
The persona representation for Beans the possum based on secondary data collated from reports / Photo via Wikimedia

Frequency of use: Throughout the design process, informing the initial concept and iterating.

Examples of non-human persons informing design decisions:

  • Removing product features — Considering the well-being of birds, wireless charging stations were removed from the design
  • Adding features — To provide a water source for possums, bees, and birds, and irrigation for the plants, a rainwater system was added
  • Adapting features — To reduce the impact on possums, birds, and bees at night, sensors were adapted to activate lights that provided visibility and safety for humans on their approach and deactivated when not needed.

This project led to the creation of a proposed non-human persona framework, which involved forming a coalition of experts related to the non-human to inform the personas more scientifically.

The steps for when the designer used the personas to assess their design were:

  1. View from the persona’s perspective
  2. Assess the impact of the design on the non-human needs
  3. Look for opportunities to innovate, asking questions such as:
  • What are the negative impacts to change?
  • What are the positive impacts to enhance?
  • What features can be included, excluded, or adapted?

This approach, and the framework, were then used to assess two existing urban digital design projects.

Project 2 — An interface on the outside of an autonomous vehicle

Non-human stakeholders: Domestic animals, bats

Frequency: A post-design analysis

Examples of non-human persons informing digital design decisions:

  • Adapt sensors to identify non-humans — Considering possums, ibises, and domestic cats and dogs as non-human stakeholders at risk of being hit by the AV, sensors were suggested enabling the AV to identify both humans and non-humans
  • Design for animal interaction — The need to consider domestic dogs as non-humans who could accompany humans inside the vehicle and their interaction with the vehicle
  • Design with care for animal differences — Bats as non-humans whose extra-sensory navigation might be potentially impacted by the AV’s technology
  • Use future scenarios — COVID-19 as a non-human that might impact the scaling of use of the vehicles

Project 3 — A desktop dashboard providing visualised data on citizens’ opinions on large urban developments

Non-human stakeholders: Eucalyptus trees

Frequency: A post-design analysis

Examples of non-human persons informing design decisions:

  • Expand data sets to include non-humans — Considering the eucalyptus tree as a primary non-human in urban areas due to its importance as a habitat, the dashboard algorithms could be designed to include posts and commentary about eucalyptus trees and other non-human species

Damien Lutz

UX Designer & Researcher | Australia

As a UX designer and researcher who has experimented with non-human and non-user personas, I’ve drawn from the insights of my own projects.

In a recent project, I predetermined an overarching Nature persona to explore if it was possible to make an online grocery e-commerce experience support life-centred thinking. While the real challenge is reducing the world’s consumption of throw-away products, I explored how UX could be used to support these changes in the meantime from the micro-level.

Using the personas

Non-human stakeholders: Nature

A generalised non-human persona for Nature, by Damien Lutz
A generalised non-human persona for Nature, by Damien Lutz

Frequency: As I had already designed the UX, I used the persona retrospectively as a lens to assess the impacts on its needs.

Assessing design impacts on persona needs:

As the Nature persona was very generalised, I assessed how its needs/values were challenged by the system the UX supported (grocery manufacturing, supply, sales, and waste).

  • Livestock welfare
  • Supply chain energy use and pollution
  • Depletion of fish and sea life
  • Farmland health, soil health, etc.
  • Pesticide use
  • Agriculture disruption to natural habitats
  • Packaging excess and waste

I then related these issues to humans, first at a system level:

  • Overconsumption is worsening all these impacts

Finally, to start bringing this back to the UX, I considered insights from the user testing that revealed how consumers were disconnected from these impacts due to:

  • Felt time-poor and wanted to purchase quickly and easily
  • Responded better to incentives or disincentives

I then brainstormed how the business could use its value and influence to support sustainable user behaviour rather than supporting the linear lifecycle of take-make-waste. For example, supermarkets could give rewards or reward points that can be spent on experiences that help customers:

  • Slow down — Passes for massages, meditation, etc.
  • Connect to nature — Suggested weekly nature walks in the customer’s area
  • Connect users to where their food comes from — Passes for farm tours, etc.
  • Reduce the damage — To reduce food wastage, offer passes to cooking classes on how to maximise food use, or provide guides on where to share food when its no longer needed
  • Heal the damage — To heal the damage of waste products ending up on the land, facilitate litter clean-up days (that also allow participants to earn more reward points to use on more planet-friendly activities or to purchase only planet-friendly products)

To bring this back to possible UX solutions, I then brainstormed how the UX could support these business initiatives

Examples of non-human personas informing design decisions:

  • Use persona first-person voice in copy such as in pop-up modals and EDMS, thanking them for the planet-friendly choices, and displaying any measurable impact their choices have made
  • Filter local-made products so users can support local produce
  • Link to helpful behaviour-change information such as guides to keeping food fresh for longer and tips for switching to plant-based foods
  • Promote and integrate not-for-profit and environmental organisations and events
  • Use calm colours and messaging (instead of time-based and urgent messaging such as ‘Buy now’ or ‘Low stock’) to help users slow down and make time for sustainable decision making

See the full case study here.

Victor Udoewa

Service Deisgner| UK

Victor Udoewa is a service and experience design lead with experience working with the USA federal government, NASA, and local community projects. He has worked with the needs of non-humans such as plants, terrains, ice, water, and air.

When it comes to non-humans, Victor also includes ‘non-living’ things, drawing from indigenous wisdom that recognises there is sentience in rocks, mountains, etc. However, in many indigenous perspectives, all creation is alive and the living/non-living separation does not exist.

He is also a great advocate for Radical Participatory Design (RPD) and uses the RPD meta-methodology and teaches Radical Participatory Design on Interaction Design Foundation — IXDF.

Victor’s approach brings together people who can bring different types of knowledge — intuitive, energetic, embodied, aesthetic, community relational, spiritual, and lived experiential knowledge — into the process. To avoid mainstream, institutional design knowledge dominating the process, these knowledge bearers become full-fledged members of the design and research team, so they lead the design with their values, ways of being, knowledge, and ways of designing, and they own the artifacts and narratives produced.

While he works at the service, social, or systems levels, his projects may feed into UX solutions, and the insights he shares can be relevant when working at all levels.

Victor works more with behavioral archetypes and characters rather than personas. Characters are based on three criteria:

  1. Anxieties and motivations
  2. Goal progress events — Events that move the human or non-human along the pathway from awareness to interest to desire to action
  3. Goal progress situations — Situations in which the human or non-human must make decisions or is forced to make a decision about whether they will take the goal-completing action or not

Using the non-human character/persona

Non-human stakeholders: Air, water

Frequency: Victor uses his non-human insights often throughout the design process, treating them the same as human ones, referring to the non-human needs whenever he would refer to the human ones.

“I’m always referring back to the needs, that’s what we’re trying to satisfy.”

Assessing design impacts on persona needs

1 — Assess the needs, use the same steps of making sure that human needs are represented

2 — Ask yourself questions:

  • Will the design now or in the future violate or detract from the needs of non-humans?
  • For the human problem we solve, are you creating that problem for the non-human?
  • What are common needs across humans and non-humans?
  • Consider digital services as tangible products somewhere — what’s the hardware of any software or UX, and how does that impact non-humans? Consider the energy used, and any waste, pollution, or heat generated.

Getting UX specific

Victor argues UX designed for humans can’t really meet non-human needs directly with UX for humans, as UX for humans is not usually about non-human interaction. The non-human needs and values are defined at the systems or social level that can then flow through the process to the product-level designer to ensure the product and UX carry those same values…

‘helping the human to interact with software in ways that uplift and support the needs of all creation or helping the human learn what actions through the software and outside the software support the flourishing of all creation.’

Victor suggests UX designers can use non-human personas by asking themselves questions, such as:

  • Is the user behaviour negatively affecting non-humans?
  • How can the design inform the users about the non-humans and non-human needs?
  • How can the design create a disruption that makes plain and visible the harmful ways the human is affecting non-human needs, in an effort to curb them?

Examples of non-human persons informing design decisions:

Adapt the experience of a learning service and product — For a digital literacy service project in India, Victor and his team had to get information to groups of people from different areas to train them on software.

With Air as a non-human stakeholder, however, the team didn’t want to add to the existing serious pollution problem by using fossil-fuelled vehicles to transport facilitators to different locations.

Instead, the team changed the experience of the educational service by delivering it through a bike program. The facilitators rode out to areas on bikes with devices and internet hot spots to provide training in various villages across India.

In Bangladesh, they did a bus program. Choosing a mobile option instead of a stationary one also brought access to the internet to many other people they met along the way. And using the same bus route each time was better for animals as they could adapt to the buses coming through.

Ben Serbutt and Fiona Tout

Design Lead and Senior Product Designer | &us | UK

Introducing the use of non-human personas into commercial design practice can be tricky, so I spoke to two designers who have made a start.

&us is an innovation and transformation consultancy in the UK. They are at the beginning of their journey into designing more life-centred, so their story about how they began using them gives insight into getting started with clients.

Ben Serbutt, Design Lead at &us, has initiated life-centred thinking with colleagues at &us through demos and fortnightly discussions about how to incorporate it into their commercial design projects.

Product designer, Fiona Tout, saw one such opportunity to use a persona for Mother Nature with a recent client.

&us were helping with the UX foundations and redefining of a product for a client with a traditional waterfall mindset. During a workshop to explore the value and benefits of the product, one of the participants noted that the product contributed to the circular economy, and Fiona saw this as an opportunity to propose using a non-human persona.

After asking the client if they’d heard about life-centred design, she proposed exploring the idea with a non-human persona representing the environment, which the client was very open to. Fiona framed the proposal as experimental, as it was also new for them as designers, and this gave open permission for the team to explore the concept.

Identifying the non-human:

Fiona pre-determined Mother Nature as the non-human, to represent the stakeholder of the circular economy, as mentioned by the client.

Co-creating the persona:

Using a very simple template on an online whiteboard, Fiona prefilled Mother Nature’s behaviours and ambitions from desktop research.

Mother Earth persona template used by &us
Mother Earth persona template used by &us

Then, with the client, the team answered questions from the Planet Centric Design toolkit to brainstorm Mother Nature’s needs and frustrations. They investigated how to measure success with Mother Nature’s needs in mind, the planet-positive and negative effects of the product, and what experts they might need to bring into the project (e.g. in sustainability).

Impacts and learnings:

Fiona and Ben plan to do a follow-up to turn the insights into actionable items to make the product more life-centred. They’re so interested in the outcome that they are aiming to use life-centred thinking on each of their new projects.

Ben is suggesting using non-human personas and other life-centred techniques as part of the standard process for every project, especially where there are opportunities to work with clients’ sustainability and innovation departments.

Damien Lutz is a UX Designer and Researcher, the creator of the Future Scouting design game, guidebook, and tools, and author of The Life-centred Design Guide.

Special thanks to Sandy Daehnert, Fiona Tout, Ben Serbutt, and Victor Udoewa for taking the time to answer my questions and generously sharing their experiences.

Categorized as UX

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