Typically, when a company or marketer is trying to outline their ideal customer, they start developing a “persona.” A persona has traditionally been made up of a set of demographics and characteristics that helps brands be laser-focused in their content, website, and targeting practices. But as the internet gets more and more ingrained in our daily lives, cracks are starting to show in the practice of how those personas are determined. In nearly all cases, one size does not fit all, and personas should be expanded to include more than just a few identifying traits. 

We’re going to dive into whether you need a persona in 2018 (spoiler: you do!), what new things you should consider when you’re creating them, and how more comprehensive, diverse personas can help create a more empathetic, inclusive internet experience for everyone going forward. 

Determining What a Persona Is vs. What it Should Be

User Personas have been a key part of marketing plans for years. Boiling down key customers into bite-sized personality and demographic traits was a great place to start when laying out content for a website, social media, or trying to sell a product. In many cases today, the term persona is being expanded to include identity, ability, and user needs. The demographic information is still useful, but should also be expanded to include the tenets of diverse personas in addition. 

What to Include in a Persona

The problem that marketers run into with traditional persona development is that the heavy emphasis on demographic averages can be extremely limiting, and often excludes a significant portion of a given company’s users. In her book Technically Wrong, Sara Wachter-Boettcher explores the idea of personas, and how she came to understand that demographics simply aren’t the point anymore. She explains that at the end of the day, “Differing motivations and challenges were the real drivers behind what people wanted,” and companies often found themselves “conflating demographic averages with motivations and needs.” 

Traditional personas include:

  • Name
  • Goal
  • Demographic
  • Frustration
  • Picture

To diversify personas, they should be expanded to inlcude:

  • Ability: A user’s ability level, and any impairments
  • Aptitude: A person’s knowledge and comfort level with using your content, site, or product.
  • Attitude: How your ideal user might feel regarding your content, site, or product.
  • Accessibility: The challenges or difficulties a user might face when using any of the above. 

The goal of an expanded persona is to create empathy for your users and potential users, rather than a static idea of who they are. Two incredibly important “quick hits” to start with as you start working toward more diverse and inclusive personas:

Pronouns: Personas are often looked at as either “he” or “she” when they’re being developed, but expanding to include non-binary, trans, and other identities can help you better understand your customers, and help your audience feel seen and included. And, this doesn’t have to be limited to just personas. Expanding your options on something as simple as a form is another important step.

Disabilities: While motivations and frustrations are common pieces of traditional persona development, considering the way differently abled users are going to interact with your site can allow it be optimized for use by a broader audience. This once again lets your audience be understood and helps your business have a greater, broader reach. 

There is No Rule of Averages

When looking to demographics to inform us about our audience, many companies begin with research, and lot and lots of data. They sift through the piles of information and try to find similarities and averages. The only problem with that? There is no such thing as “average.” In a three-part Medium article, “The Three Dimensions of Inclusive Design,” Jutta Treviranus explains that “Average is an artificial construct. There is not even an average us, we each vary from context to context, from goal to goal.” Of course, this doesn’t mean there should be hundreds of individual personas, rather that you should use this line of thinking as a guide and reminder when trying to boil people down to the sum of their parts. 

Think Smarter

Talking to real people is key when working on new, expanded personas. They should feel like a real person. The goal is to host short but informative customer interviews, to get real feedback from real users and buyers. Don’t be afraid to ask “why” several times — it can take some digging to get to the motivations behind a behavior, and that is where the gold is. Channel your inner toddler (within reason of course!) and get to the heart of the matter. It will help you create a more empathetic user experience, which in the end will only be better for your customer and your business. Jutta Treviranus explores this topic as well, and reminds us that: 

“The intelligence we gather should make the person smarter about their unique needs, rather than, or as well as, the machine smarter about how to adapt. This requires transparency regarding choices made and the reasons for the choices.”

Your interviews should be a two-way street. Useful to your company and your customer. They might not know what they need, and your questions should guide them to the answer.

Picture This

An on-going question relating to user personas is whether or not a photo is more or less helpful when included. For a long time, photos helped make the ideal user more “real” in the mind of the company. However, it can often make it much more limited. Marketers can get too hyper-focused on one type of person, and exclude pieces of their audience, even without meaning to. Some web and content strategists, like Sara Wachter-Boettcher argue against including photos, and note that they’ve caused contention and confusion among her clients, who were unable to see past the person in the picture. Ultimately, it will depend every time, but a good rule of thumb is if your persona is well thought out and fully brought to life, a picture is most likely not needed. 

Psychographics vs. Demographics

While demographics can help you understand who your customer is, psychographics help you understand the why behind what they do, allowing you to better understand what motivates them. 

Talking to people is again the way to get the best and most in-depth information when it comes to psychographics. Using surveys and data often won’t lead to the meatier answers needed for this, and while it may be more time consuming, will help your audience feel better understood, and will help you create meaningful content that your audience wants to engage with. A win-win.

While empathy might not be something that comes easily to everyone, taking the time to further consider your user personas as you move forward will allow your audience to feel included and better understood. Three things to remember when you’re thinking about your next set of personas:

 1. Your user research should make both you and your audience smarter about your respective needs: it’s a two-way street. 

 2. Psychographics > Demographics

 3. Focus on the “why” not the “who.”