Personas are often used by teams when making decisions that will impact their users. While personas are not "real" people, they should reflect reality. But what about when reality isn't ideal? What happens when you discover that the range of current users, based on the people occupying high-ranking positions in IT, does not reflect the diversity we would hope to see? Do you faithfully and accurately portray reality, or paint an aspirational picture of how it should be in an inclusive world?
What is a persona?
Personas are evidence-based models used to represent a group of research participants segmented by user behavior. They are abstractions intended to display the spectrum of goals, contexts and attitudes that impact the way people interact with your product. Companies often use personas to help understand how to make the right thing and how to make the thing right. It is easier to market to or create a product for someone when you understand who they are, what they need and how they expect to meet those needs.
Designers, product managers, engineers and more use personas to understand exactly who they are creating for. When you understand the motivations and frustrations of the person using your product, you can anticipate their needs better.
How much information is too much?
Having detailed personas helps paint a picture of precisely who we are creating for. What lifestyle does our user have? What are their passions and motivations? Knowing what the user cares about can help influence how we design for them.
For example, let’s say you are designing a website and you know that 38% of your audience are guardians of young children. While taking care of children may not influence whether they use your product, it does impact how they use it. They might only have one hand free because the other hand is holding a sleeping baby, for example. So the website should allow the user to easily navigate with one hand. Instead of making the user type in their responses, they could have the option to select from a dropdown menu.
Although having a descriptive understanding of your audience is necessary, being too descriptive can take away from parts that are important. Why does it matter if the user likes to play pickleball in their free time when you’re designing business software? Personas should be filled with relevant goal-driven information to help make the product better for the user without inputting biases, such as behavioral drivers, product domain and use case.
At Red Hat, we strive to be inclusive and promote diversity, but how do personas play a role in achieving that mission? Do we create personas that reflect our current users, or do we create personas based on the diverse audience we hope to support?
The argument for representational personas
We need to confront who our audience is. How can we push to create a more inclusive space without acknowledging the demographics?
In 2017, GitHub surveyed 6,000 open source users and developers. By randomly selecting respondents, they found that:
95% were men, 3% were women and 1% were non-binary
16% were members of ethnic or national minorities in the country where they lived at the time of the survey
7% identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual or another minority sexual orientation
Women were more likely than men to encounter language or content that makes them feel unwelcome (25% vs. 15%) as well as stereotyping (12% vs. 2%) and unsolicited sexual advances (6% vs. 3%)
Almost 25% of the open source community read and wrote English less than "very well"
If we don’t address and acknowledge our current demographics, we are ignoring the problem. Confronting the barriers to inclusion in the open source community helps us learn how to create a more inclusive environment. Portraying the reality that most open source users and developers are straight, cisgender men opens the discussion of why and what needs to change to create a space for others to join.
Using accurate data to create personas is not avoiding the discussion around inclusion. It’s bringing awareness to the lack of diversity in the technology space. According to the 2021 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics population survey, only 26.7 percent of computer and information system managers are women. Recognizing these statistics allows us to explore why women are less likely to follow STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career paths. Are there biases that prevent women from holding higher-level positions?
The argument for aspirational personas
We need to consider all of the people we want to account for. When we don’t include underrepresented, underinvested and underserved groups in our personas, how can we expect our products to work for them? Our outcomes won’t change unless our process does.
Focusing on underrepresented groups doesn’t mean neglecting the rest of your users. Typically, when you make inclusive designs for an underrepresented group, they already work for well-represented groups. For example, ensuring all photos have alternative text allows people to understand what the photo is displaying without seeing it, making the product more accessible to people living with diverse visual abilities. For those without visual impairments, the alternative text won’t impact their experience.
Personas should be a reflection of the audiences we aspire to have, including people from underrepresented gender, age, socioeconomic, ethnographic and neurodiverse groups, as well as folks using assistive technology. When we create aspirational personas, we change how we think about design, engineering, business, training and opportunities.
Help us connect with the next generation of Red Hat users
Personas are created using insights from real people. They help us to develop products that anticipate real people's needs and goals. Research studies allow Red Hat to speak to and get opinions from people from all different backgrounds and experiences.
If you or someone you know actively uses Linux or Red Hat products and are interested in helping us improve, check out our user experience design (UXD) research webpage to learn more about our current research studies. If you don’t find a good fit for you, you can sign up to be notified of new studies, or you can just check back later. Listed studies are updated often.
Original illustrations by Burundi Fletcher.
About the authors
Human centered design is not a practice, it is a world view. Inside and outside Red Hat, Jayanty works to democratize the tools of design and development, enabling living experts to co-create solutions that better their lives and their communities. Wearing the Red Hat since 2021.
Amber Asaro has undergrad degrees in general psychology and digital business. She is master certified in both user experience research, and also in UX Management and Interaction. She joined Red Hat in 2021 after working 15 years in the healthcare IT domain. Asaro enjoys everything outdoors and picking up new hobbies like speaking a new language, playing instruments, crochet, etc.