Design personas

For a while now I’ve been following a few people on twitter who have one or two feet in the design camp (or at least I think they do). I’m thinking of @fergusbisset @rufflemuffin @redjotter @segelstrom and @niccombe for starters. I’m quite strict with myself on twitter and am determined to keep my following count to under 200 so as tempted as I am to follow more like @designthinkers @choosenick @wenovski @thinkpublic @sidekickstudios to name a few, I’m trying to keep my distance! Part of the reason for keeping a distance is that I figure all the good stuff tends to get retweeted these days and I think the danger of following too many people is that I’d risk losing my objectivity.

I have been particularly drawn to a lot of talk around service design and some of the applications of it. Whilst genuinely seeing the potential for a lot of the methods that service designers seem to talk of, I’m also intrigued in the overlap to good old fashioned social science research methods.

One of the methods that I was particularly drawn to was the idea of using personas (disclaimer: I’m not sure if these are a service design method, or some other sort of design method, or not really a method at all). From my uneducated design stand point they sounded like a great idea; I thought they’d be similar to case studies or vignettes that we use in social work and I have used in the past in education settings. Except when I first started looking at a few personas in papers that people had sent around, or in following discussions on blogs and project pages etc, they all looked a little too simplistic. They tended to be talking about people who were uni-dimensional, so for example there might have been one person who had a mobility problem, then another who had a visual impairment or the like but never have I seen a persona where both of those factors are combined.

So, in short, personas were just not real enough for me; people are complex and personas were simple!

Social workers tend to work with people who need lots of support in society and the people that they are involved with on a daily basis tend to be complex beings. So one client might have mobility difficulties, a visual impairment and a mental health problem; another be an elderly person requiring support with getting up and dressed in the morning but also caring for their adult daughter with a learning disbaility; I strongly suspected that people who require the support of social care services would rarely fit what appeared to be a persona model. So its fair to say I was sceptical.

Over drinks the other week I shared this scepticism with @niccombe and @fergusbisset; what followed was a defence of the approach from Ferg, some challenge from Nic and even more uncertainty for me. Fast forward a month or so and I’m stranded in London not able to go away on holiday, you can read more here or here but it’s a sorry tale so you’ll need a hanky ;). Anyway there is a silver lining to this volcano cloud in that today I found myself reading this book:

Within this book there is a whole chapter on personas; it explains the thinking and the theory, the pros and cons, the whats and whys, how to create them and so on. I’m not going to just copy chunks out of the chapter but the most reassuring bit for me was to hear that personas are nearly always created following user research and aren’t just dreamt up out of creative thoughts; that they focus on skills, attitudes, behaviours, aims and goals; and that they are not ‘average’ but rather they are typical, which I think is a really important distinction and much easier for me to imagine the benefit of them. The other point the chapter covered that I was glad to see fronted up was why personas were easier to use than real people (save time, dont start to think like the design team and don’t have idiosyncrasies like colour preferences) – a question I’ve often wondered but never really explored.

So I’ve understood one more thing today, I’ve got loads more questions and will be looking to explore how design can impact on social work further, but for now I’m one step closer to being convinced of the value of personas. If anyone reading this has any examples of design being used in social care I’d love to hear from you, please post a comment here or come talk to me on twitter @georgejulian.


2 thoughts on “Design personas

  1. Hello again!
    OK, I see you are on the same journey as me with all of this (as I expected). Look forward to reading more:)

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