The what, why, and how of persona permutations
Personas were coined in the 1990s by Alan Cooper in his novel Inmates Are Running the Asylum : Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. According to Nielson-Norman Group (NNG), a thought-leader in the user experience world, personas are tools “to help us focus on what matters most to our users and put ourselves in their shoes when making design decisions.” They help us create emotional connections to our customers, give our teams common vernacular, and make it easy to recall each key customer type.
Since their creation, personas have seemingly undergone a game of telephone. Every organization has a slightly different way to create these artifacts; some methods are squishier than others. The inconsistency in methodology has led to some personas being imbued with unintended bias and/or representing only one stereotypical view of your target demographic. Moreover, some are built on conjecture-based assumptions rather than data-based. Ultimately, this can lead to teams building products for a stereotype, creating barriers to entry, and the alienation of parts of the primary demographic that weren’t considered when designing. A common example is using gender-specific pronouns. If a consumers doesn’t identify as either male or female and your product refers to them as she or he, that is an exclusionary experience.
This article will help you understand if your personas are imbued with unintentional bias or represent only a stereotype, and how to shift your approach to create inclusive personas.
*If you need help creating personas, I recommend these articles: “Kill Your Personas” and NNG’s article “Personas Make Users Memorable for Product Team Members”.
The permutation persona test evaluates how many transformations can be applied to your persona while retaining the core demographic. The intent of this test is to eliminate bias (Are your personas all abled? Do your personas represent only a stereotype?), capture a broader audience within your target demographic, and ultimately, design inclusive experiences.
To test permutations, apply this formula:
Permutation Persona = your original persona + a change in gender identity + a change in physical state or mental condition + a life change
- Does my persona still apply if I switch its gender or if the persona identifies as another gender?
- Tip: Look at the name of your persona. A gendered name such as Emma limits the gender identity in a way that a non-binary name such as Alex or Taylor doesn’t.
- FAQ: Our persona is created for a non-binary demographic. Does this still part of this test still apply? Yes, but it’s slightly tweaked. You will want to think about the phase your non-binary persona is in. Have they come out as non-binary? Do they want to change their name? Ultimately, what is your product offering them to support their gender identification.
Impairments and Disabilities
- Does my persona still apply if he/she/ze has an impairment or a disability? This includes temporary, situational, or permanent disabilities.
- Tip: If your persona already includes this, you can apply other disabilities or impairment, such as someone who uses a switchboard.
- Does my persona still apply if he/she/ze has a life change, such as marriage/divorce, a child, buys a house, moves to another location, experiences a loss, or goes back to school. This is relevant because it changes how your persona spends money, engages with your product, and interacts with their community. It also helps you understand if your product has longevity with customers. The answer is crucial for industries such as finance.
- FAQ: Our persona is created for someone who experiences a life change. Does this still apply? Yes! Life events rarely happen in singularity; they tend to combine (For instance, my friend got a promotion and found out she was pregnant in the same week.). Try combining life events to see how that shifts your persona’s needs.
If after trying these alterations, you found your persona needed change, that’s okay! We are continuously learning and rethinking how we approach problems.
I created a primary persona caretaker called Anxious Allie for a children’s hospital and walked this persona through a high-level journey (scrubbed version shown below). Does Anxious Allie pass the Permutation Persona Test?
No, she doesn’t. Allie is portrayed only as a stereotype when in reality a mother is much broader. If we use stereotypes to design, we may miss the opportunity to connect with all our customers, and more harmfully, we may put ourselves at risk of unintentionally creating exclusionary experiences.
Why’d she fail?
- Gender identity
Allie is a gendered name, and stereotypically places a female as the primary caretaker. “According to the most recent report published by the United States Census Bureau in 2020, based on data from 2017 to 2018, the percentage of custodial fathers in the US increased from 16% in 1994 to 17.5% in 2014, and then to 20.1% in 2018” (Marija Lazic article “35 Divisive Child Custody Statistics”). Thus, the stereotypical view does not accurately represent society and therein lies the rub. If we used this persona in product/marketing campaign to target caretakers, we’d be failing to reach a large subset of our demographic. They’d most likely spend their money with a company who understands caregivers come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, a seasonal study conducted by Accenture in 2018 found “millennials are more likely to choose one brand over another if that brand demonstrates inclusion and diversity in terms of its promotions and offers (cited by 70 percent of younger millennial respondents and 69 percent of older millennials)” (“Millennials will spend big with inclusion-conscious retailers this holiday”).
Also, the story shown is specifically for a male and female relationship. Of the 1.1 million same sex couples in the United States, roughly 15% of them had at least child under 18 in their household (U.S. Census Bureau). Thus, the alteration of caregivers being a same-sex couple is absent as well. It also doesn’t include a single parent. In 2020, there were 15.31 million single moms and 3.27 million single dads (Statista).
2. Impairments and Disabilities
We can improve the persona by applying the variation of a disability or impairment to capture a wider subset of the target demographic. For instance, 14 million Americans have vision impairment (National Institutes of Health). Moreover, disabilities can be permanent (e.g. one arm), situational (e.g. holding a baby and having one free arm), or temporary (e.g. a broken arm).
If your persona is fully abled, you are creating constraints that may impede innovation. For example, Good Grips was created by a person with arthritis to better hold cooking utensils. Voice-to-text was created for those with disabilities and has become central to technology. You want to create a persona that is emblematic of the human experience and accounts for permutations. The more transformations that can applied to your persona, the more successful it will be in representing all facets of your target audience.
How do I make these changes to my persona?
- Gender Identity
- Choose representative photos. Instead of using one photo, I’ve found success choosing a few photos to represent the persona. This helps people understand this isn’t one person; it’s a representation of a diverse group of people in our primary target audience .
- Use a non-binary name. For global companies, choose non-binary global names such as Finley, Alex, Adrian, Skyler and a representation of last names (Gonzalez, Thomas, Wagner).
- Eliminate pronouns in your persona. If you use a gender-specific pronoun, it inhibits your persona’s ability to encompass other genders. Tip: To be more inclusive, I shifted to the pronoun they or ze; unfortunately, many people in my organization believed ze was a typo or they was incorrect grammar. Therefore, I tend to use the name instead of the pronoun. To help shift the culture, before we walk through journeys with our stakeholders, we start by educating those on the call why we are using ze, what it means, and then use the pronoun in our journey. It’s been amazing to see people start using ze in the vernacular after these quick education sessions.
2. Impairments and Disabilities
I recommend using the spectrum-based persona approach created by Microsoft. They note in Inclusive: A Microsoft Design Toolkit, “We use the Persona Spectrum to understand related mismatches and motivations across a spectrum of permanent, temporary, and situational scenarios. It’s a quick tool to help foster empathy and to show how a solution scales to a broader audience.”
You can use a variety of scenarios to understand situational, permanent, and temporary disabilities. One common example I’ve shared with my team is: Your customer gets on the subway. What happens if they lose service? Does your site autosave? What happens if they hold onto the rail and can now only interact with one hand? It’s also loud and they can’t hear what your app is saying. How do you account for that? All these questions came from one scenario and can lead your team to more intuitive and inclusive products.
If you are having trouble coming up with scenarios for your persona, I love Cards for Humanity. It deals scenario cards you can use as you design.
3. Life Changes
Life changes are how your persona’s traits shift as they move through life. They are used to cut to the heart of the question: How relevant is your product as your persona evolves? The best way to answer this is to start with a deeper understanding of your audience.
For example, we are in the midst of The Great Job Migration. People are leaving their crummy jobs in droves. In fact, Microsoft released a study, The Next Great Disruption is Hybrid Work — Are We Ready, highlighting
Our research shows that 41 percent of the global workforce is likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year, with 46 percent planning to make a major pivot or career transition.
Employees want more than the mundane from their employers. They are looking for challenges, fulfillment, and companies that treat them well. Mix in natural disasters, civil unrest, and a global pandemic, and you have a recipe for rapid shifts to the human experience. For example, on December 30, 2021, a fire took roughly 1100 homes in Superior, Colorado. The it-could-never-happen-to-me is happening to people everywhere, causing rapid changes to their perspectives and views. Thus we need to ask: How does the product help the immediate needs of the primary persona and can permutate to meet their additional, unforeseen needs?
You may not have the answers to these questions OR the answers may unfold like with Snapchat or Pinterest through additional customer research/natural evolution of your product. It starts with a greater empathy and awareness of your customer.
We looked at a persona named Allie who failed the permutation persona test (Permutation Persona = your original persona + a change in gender identity + a change in physical state or mental condition + a life change). Why did Allie fail? She was a representation of my inherent bias of a caregiver.
Malcom Gladwell noted in his book Blink:
“[Research] suggests that what we think of as free will is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act — and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment — are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.”
Unintentionally and frequently unbeknownst to the creator, bias comes through in our personas. You can combat this through awareness, empathy, and leveraging quantitative and qualitative data to build the full picture. Let’s break free from the one size fits all approach, and start designing personas that are malleable and include the wide array of people in that demographic.
Where do you start?
At the end of the day, as Brene Brown reminds us all: We aren’t here to be right. We are here to do it right.