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

The story usually goes something like this:

With post-it notes all around, a group of designers sit tightly in a well-lit room. After brainstorming for product ideas and reviewing the data available at hand, they ask them themselves, “Who are the users for this product?”

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photo by Alex Person on Unsplash

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

With gratitude for an input, the rest of the designers agree that Brenda is the ultimate user for this product. As a proto-persona, Brenda throughout the evolution of the product changes in age, profession and concerns. However, the rest of her identity relatively stays the same. The product launches, and “Brenda”s all around the world cheer in admiration for the product built for all the “Brenda”s in the world. Success! Right?

No. Not in my opinion.

The product may be deemed a success in the eyes of the company’s leaders — it is usable and it is nice-looking. But potential clients who were untouched by this product stay hidden in the radar. The company goes back to designing more products for more Brenda’s of the world.

Why do proto-personas around every design room sound so similar? Why wasn’t Brenda manufactured beyond age, profession and concern? Is that all there is to Brenda’s identity? Why did the persona creation stage not intensify?

This article will address these questions and look at our natural instincts in persona creation that generates the “boxed-in” user. This article will then argue how the boxed-in user can hurt the creative process.

  1. Why did no one else chime in to manufacture Brenda to further develop her complexity?

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 with with remnants of real life people. The truth is: Brenda does not exist. She is as real as Santa Claus or Mary Poppins — visual imagery may appear in our heads when we think of these characters but they are nonetheless fictional. Brenda is limited to what the first designer’s experiences. It is quite possible that the product being developed will be useful for users who are outside of the the first designer’s experiences or associations, such as marginalized users.

  1. Why did the persona creation stage not intensify?

Without proper research, you cannot challenge the existence of Brenda. Just as much as it is difficult to argue Brenda is the main user, it is equally difficult to justify why she isn’t the main user, without research. Brenda remains on the shelf as a fictional character in our head, until we are outside the building and interacting with a real-life person. Without each new observation, interview, and qualitative data source, Brenda cannot grow in complexity.

  1. 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, and giving them a visual imagery in their head whenever they thought of the “user”. Brenda did not add complexities to the product, nor did she give verification or justification to the features the product ended up having.

It is also important to note, Brenda was a boxed-in user. 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. Throughout the time that it took you to read 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? 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. Experiences of an individual, whether it is visible or invisible, cannot be tapped into without power of qualitative research gathering that helps to unearth and discover an experience.

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photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

We as designers, or as members of the unequal society, cannot be expected to operate without bias because the system in which we live in is corrupt with dominant ideals of what a true “person” is. Research is crucial today more than ever for product development, because the very people who sit at the designer’s table, the industry tables, the executives’ tables are so unequally balanced. Limited in our experiences, we must leave our building and seek out real persons in the world who will be affected by our product. 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.

“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.”

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


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Research Blog by Jude Park
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