Humanizing Personas

Diverse abilities as empathy hooks


Personas have become an integral part of the human experience designer's process, as well as one of the first steps in a service design engagement. There's no doubting the value of the personas that a user experience research team creates through careful and copious interviewing, observing, and listening. Often, these personas are created for the sake of the interaction designers as well as the other members of the product team - content strategy, visual design, product management, development, and other people who need to understand your product's users. 

The consumers of these personas are often not in any way similar to their users, so creating a set of commonly grouped user attributes which maps to an archetypal user can be very helpful for assisting the team to empathisize with their users, which is the first step in truly designing with a customer-centric mindset. Oftentimes, these personas include a photograph that is supposed to help the team put a face to these sets of user attributes, which makes it much easier for humans to empathize, but also allows our own biases to affect our feelings for a group of users, and potentially the product or UX design.

Indi Young writes eloquently and at length about removing photographs from user personas for this exact reason - imagery makes it harder to ignore our own biases. In my experience, personas have often been very colorful, graphically designed one-sheets that appeal to visual learners very well, and have enough written content to make the persona meaningful. I suggest not only leaving out the photos but also turning the page into more of a story, elaborating and adding color with words and layout instead of imagery.

This admittedly and inevitably makes the process of empathizing with users via personas much more difficult. However, adding diverse abilities to all of the persona stories will help the team humanize these now much more verbal personas, oftentimes in unintended very personal ways, making the personas more meaningful and valuable, not less. This is also a great way to leave out other information that may only fan the flames of bias, as well; what was once described as a Senior user, with a low technical aptitude, from Kentucky, with an accompanying picture of a grey-haired auntie is now: Casey, a low-sighted, person with a slight cognitive impairment, or something to that effect. Utilizing the vast array of diverse abilities that exists also reinforces to the team that their users are neither perfect nor typical.

In fact despite the creation of personas, there truly is no 'typical' user.


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