The “Boxed-In” User that Designers Should Avoid in Persona Creation




  • Alex Person
  • “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”

    The life of a UX researcher usually goes something like this:

    With post-it notes all around, a group of designers sit huddled in in a sterile, all-too-white room. After brainstorming for product ideas they ask them themselves, “Who are the users for this product?”

    They rock their foreheads. Finally someone breaks the silence, “I know, how about Brenda? She is a x years old y with z as her main concerns.”

    Grateful for input, the rest of the designers agree that Brenda is a user for this product. As a proto-persona, Brenda throughout the design process changes in age, profession and concerns. The product launches, and Brendas all around the world cheer in admiration for the product built for all the Breendas in the world. Success! Right?

    No. Not in my opinion.

    Potential users who were not even considered by this product stay hidden in the radar. The company missed an entire market, but they continue designing more products for more Brendas of the world.

    Why are all proto-personas in every design processes seem so similar to one another? Why wasn't Brenda manufactured beyond age, profession and concern? Why did the persona creation stage not intensify?

    In most persona creation by design studios, it is only natural that they would generate such a one-dimensional user like Brenda, because most design processes are spearheaded by white designers. In a room that lacks diversity, and most likely a room where each member had many privileges that helped them get there, people are doomed to create a "boxed-in" user. Brenda is their imagination of a what a user is, because they never access to people of minority. Privilege keeps you safe from not only the harsh realities of the world but it also keeps you further away from those who do not have privilege. A "boxed-in" user is dangerous, because not only do they hurt the creative process, but such boxed-in users encourage the developers to design a biased and discriminatory product.

    Why was Brenda not further developed in complexity?

    People don't like to challenge the source of the user. When the first designer presented Brenda as one possible user for the product, the other designers did not challenge the source of Brenda. Brenda was an imaginary product from a single mind, perhaps a remnants of real life people that the person knew. The truth is: Brenda does not exist. She is as real as Santa Claus or Mary Poppins. Brenda is limited to the experiences of the first designer’s experiences.

    Why did the persona creation stage not intensify?

    Without proper research, designers cannot challenge the existence of Brenda. It is difficult to justify anything you do in the research phase without data. Brenda remains on the shelf as a fictional character in our head, until we are go outside the building and start interacting with a real-life people. Without new observation, Brenda cannot grow in complexity.

    What value did Brenda actually bring to the product?

    Brenda brought nothing in value for the designers, other than allowing them to have self-fulfilling affirmation that what they were doing had a purpose. Brenda did not add complexities to the product, nor did she give verification or justification to the features the product ended up having, because Brenda was a user that fits the bill of what “normal” means in society: fully able-bodied, generic majority race and no marginalized experiences that defined who she was.

    Morphology of Brenda

    While reading this article, what did “Brenda” look like in your head? Did she have any physical attributes? Was she a visual minority? Did she have targeted experiences that marginalized her, other than her sex as a woman?

    Who is Brenda? What did Brenda struggle with in her life? Perhaps it was her battle with mental illness. Or she has a sick father she is taking care of. Experiences that are invisible make up who Brenda’s core of her identity, and it propels her to choose the kind of products or services she chooses to interact with. Yet without exploring these needs, she stays in the box.

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    photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

    We as designers, or as members of this society, cannot be expected to operate without bias because the world in which we live in is rampant with dominant ideals of what a "true" person is. A true person as represented in our media and mainstream narratives - is a white, privileged person. Research is crucial today more than ever for product development, because the very people who sit at the designer’s table, the industry tables, and the executives’ tables are so homogenous. If you don't have someone at the table who have diverse, different experiences than your own, then you are limited in your ability to truly understand potential users. You must leave the building and seek out real persons in the world who is different from you to design for them. A group of designers cannot be trusted to think of the user for a product alone. Without research, what they end up creating will only be the boxed-in user.

    I believe designers have an ethical duty to properly speak and interact and hire those with experiences drastically different from ours. We can start acknowledging our limitations to reduce the margins for error. We cannot ever start with certainty, because certainty does not truly exist in our line of work, and it does us more harm than good.