Personas are “empathy tools,” not stereotypes

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We all use personas in everyday social situations. But, like in many design projects, we use to them to typecast instead of to evoke empathy. Personas, like stereotypes, often result in discriminatory behavior. When used in design, personas can create poor design that disempowers and alienate users.

We all like to know how to treat people appropriately. We tend to use what social theorists Berger and Luckman call “typifications” when interacting socially. When we go to the store, to a meeting, to a party — we need to know how to act with people. We genuinely want to make people feel comfortable and we want to feel comfortable ourselves.

But to use a typification often has the unintended consequence of being condescending. Elderly people are spoken to in loud, exagerrated tones. Women are assumed to be physically fragile. Men are considered to be sexually aggressive. These typifications are stereotypes that affect how we, in turn, react. Elderly people may react angrily, for example, at the implied loss of their faculties.

Designers often make the same mistake when making personas. Personas are tools to evoke empathy. But poorly created personas will simply regurgitate stereotypes instead of actually answering real needs. When a site is designed “for women,” it should allow women (and all of its users) to define their experience, according to their needs. Women may have more need to juggle schedules, for example, so interactive experiences should allow them to adopt such features.

An interactive experience should not, however, force me to be treated as a “mom on the go” simply because I’m a woman. And honestly, if there’s one persona phrase that makes me want to vomit/go on a murderous rampage/re-design the design process, it’s the dreaded “mom on the go.” Show me a mom NOT on the go, and I’ll show you a mom who forgets she has children.

Worse, don’t treat me, a childless woman of 38, as a “mom on the go,” simply because YOUR data tell you I should have children. Instead, empathize with me. Allow me to satisfy unmet needs, should I so choose. DO NOT force me to adopt features and functionality that are appropriate for what you think I OUGHT to need.

As a woman, I am frequently “treated” to “gentle” behavior. People will open doors for me, or perhaps allow me to pass first out of a crowded elevator. This is not because I require it, nor because I expect it, but because it is believed that women still are the “gentler sex.”

Defeating the problem of personas as stereotypes is to put yourself in the user’s shoes. In other words, don’t forget that personas are empathy tools. Allow her to choose her experience. Provide her the features and functionality that she MIGHT like, based on your qualitative research. But under no circumstances force her to adopt features or functionality that reproduce what someone “ought” to be.

Forcing people to adopt behaviors is as far from empathy as one can get. Interactive experiences that foist “mom on the go” fantasies onto real people risk alienating their users at best; at worst they perpetuate sexist stereotypes.


2 responses to “Personas are “empathy tools,” not stereotypes

  1. Couldn’t agree more about the use and misuse of personas. I’ve been building out Clorox’s deep consumer insight capability for the last 5 years, and one of the most challenging aspects of this job has been the “transfer” of insights. Once we synthesize all the data (including deep ethnographic dives) into insight, how do we get it into the business process / person? We have steered away from personas for the reasons you’ve stated. Instead, we focus more on stories, which tend to elicit deep empathy and personal associations that give the designer / creative / business strategist their own personal beacon.

  2. Pingback: Personas and archetypes | people inspired innovation

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