User Inclusion Through Agnostic Personas 

There’s a good chance you and your marketing or product team have personas in hand. They are an indispensable tool for creating meaningful, personalized experiences for your customers, prospects, and users. Have you ever wondered if the personas that you have are effective? Are they accurately representing your audience segments?

Well, you aren’t alone. Re-evaluating your personas is a great exercise and we highly recommend doing so. There are many lenses through which you can perform that evaluation, and we want to share some insight on making your personas more inclusive.

What are personas?

Personas are an important UX tool to aid in helping brands and organizations speak to sections of their audience. They can be presented as an infographic or visualization that describes a specific user type which has defined characteristics that make the segment unique from another segment. Personas highlight opportunities for personalized communication and experiences that resonate with the motivations, behaviors, and needs of subsets of the total audience that a brand might be looking to connect with. By creating personalized experiences for each persona, there is a higher likelihood that they will purchase, develop brand affinity, and have a positive experience or develop a positive sentiment toward your company.

The Persona Misconception: “Person” vs. “PersonA”.

When creating a persona, you have to identify common characteristics across many users to start creating a target to aim for. However, this approach is often taken a step further than it needs to be, and suddenly we’re looking at a character profile of a person instead of a group of people. Companies will put in a lot of time and effort into gathering data for a set of personas, and they want to put all of that data to use (rightly so), but this often ends in a very specific scenario for a very specific person, which in the end defeats the purpose of a persona. Here is a short example:

“Jamie Richardson is a 25 year old female, and she lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She has a 4 year degree from University of Miami and a yearly income of $45,000. She is single, has no kids, and makes all of the purchasing decisions for her 1-person household.”

There is not a very high likelihood that an entire user segment aligns with all of these characteristics, but it’s very common to see this kind of hyper-specific demographic data in personas today. While there are benefits in certain situations to using this detailed approach, more often than not, it creates a persona that is not representative of the entire audience segment. This approach is, in our experience, a byproduct of the templatized way personas have been taught and inherited into the UX practice.

This process of turning personas into a person often begins with demographics, the first defining features of a persona, and the desire to create a tangible representation of the audience group. So marketers start to attach ages, marital statuses, family make-up, and genders to the persona that are not providing any intrinsic value to the persona, but rather excluding users unnecessarily. You might look critically at your existing personas and ask questions like: Why is this persona 52 years old? Why do they have 2 children? Is it relevant that they attended this specific school? Looking critically through this lens is a great way to identify if there is superfluous information added to personas to make them “look like a persona” when in reality these key demographics give nothing to the overall persona.

The Persona Golden Rule(s)

We’d love to share with you a few tips that we use when establishing our personas. As an exercise, you can apply these recommendations to your existing personas and see what kind of difference it makes.

  1. If it does not add value, make it agnostic.
  • Ages become age ranges
    • If a defined age is really important to your segment, then by all means, go with a specific age for your persona. If not, go with an age range – it’s more inclusive of the segment you are speaking to.
  • Genders become neutral. Use they/them pronouns.
    • This is a great opportunity to expand the way your internal team thinks about the members of an audience segment. You may have chosen a gendered name or user story to convey the needs or motivations of your persona, but that may actually be limiting your effectiveness. If there isn’t a strong case for the persona to be gendered, try shifting to gender-neutral pronouns.
  • Names are changed to archetypes (ex. John turns into The Realist)
    • Similar to shifting from gendered to gender-neutral pronouns, the shift to archetypes from names can better represent your persona. Names can carry a lot of unintended information about geolocation, gender, ethnicity, or class that could unintentionally bias how you approach and message to that audience segment. Archetypes of behavior or motivation keep the focus on user needs, motivations, and behaviors. 
  • Locations are removed, or generalized to larger regions
    • Does your audience segment live in a particular country, region, city, or town? If not, we’d recommend that you not include that type of location information in your persona – it may not be representative of the entire persona group and/or it may not be relevant to how they make their decisions.

2. If it DOES add value, make sure that is documented somewhere in the persona.

Of course, there are times when you DO want to include all of the things we just called out – as long as they are factors that uniquely speak to all the members of the audience segment the persona represents. Here are a few examples.

  • This persona is 50 because that is the average age of menopause.
  • This persona is male because the majority of our audience is male.
  • This persona is named John because that is a common American name representative of the audience segment.
  • This persona is based in San Francisco because this user type is often found in silicon valley.

When evaluating the Do’s and Don’ts, you can apply a value test to the persona.  If you were to send this persona in an email to a stakeholder who has no other context besides what is stated on the persona, will all of the information presented make sense? If not, revise. 

Keep in mind that when an unnecessary piece of information is added to a persona, such as gender, you are automatically removing every other gender from that user group. Only add information if it is relevant and valuable.

Not sure if your personas are meeting your needs? Let’s chat! Our team of experts can help evaluate, revamp, or create net-new personas for your organization.