“Those personas are way too far-fetched, no one’s life is that difficult”

Michelle Dawson gives us her take on using personas to support the design of new services.



I have heard this quite a lot during the time I have been using personas to support the design of new solutions or services. It perfectly demonstrates why personas can be such a powerful tool in any design or improvement project. Bringing key stakeholders together to collaborate on a new project provides a melting pot of rich ideas and creative input, but it can also mean the customer gets lost in the process, especially if it’s a long time since some of those stakeholders spent any time in direct contact with the customers themselves.

The gold standard of course, would be having customers present and be part of the design process, but like with our ‘Living Well’ project, some of the customers whose experiences are most valuable to the design process aren’t always the people most able or motivated to engage in these sorts of things. Personas are often the next best thing.

What are the key things to consider when developing Personas for design projects?

In our experience, if you follow a few guiding principles, you won’t go far wrong:

  • Talk to, observe, and gather insight directly from the customers. This might sound obvious, but it’s difficult in practice, and especially hard during a pandemic. With ‘Living Well’ our target customers are older and often vulnerable, which means engagement work must be carefully planned, well communicated, and supported by front line staff. Capture key themes, quotes and listen out for nuggets of gold. I describe these as things which are ‘remarkable, repeated or revealing’. Gathering an in-depth understanding of the customers to create authentic and high-quality personas will pay dividends later. This kind of work is resource intensive, and if you can’t afford the time or resource, the next best thing is to talk to the people close to your customers, like front line staff.
  • Don’t be afraid to include those customers who are more marginalised. The risk is to only create Personas for customers who stakeholders perceive to be their ‘average’ or ‘generic’ customer. This is problematic for lots of reasons, not least because everyone sees this definition through their own lens of what ‘average’ is. In my experience this group of customers don’t really exist. In the world of housing, health and social care, the customers with the most complex and difficult lives are often the ones the existing systems don’t work for, so excluding them from the design process doesn’t make much sense.
  • A persona shouldn’t represent an actual real person, but rather it should epitomise the insights or key characteristics of a group of real people. I like to have at least five or six, but even just one or two can really make a difference to the way a group of stakeholders approach a design task
  • Use them throughout the process. They are a great resource to come back to and test out ideas on; ‘would this idea work for Mavis?’ is a quick and simple way to test any possible solutions before taking them any further in the process. It also helps prevent self-deferential design, where people start to judge ideas based on their preferences or the lives of the people close to them. We aren’t designing for the Director’s Mum; we are designing for the Social Housing Customers living in central Middlesbrough. Personas can really help keep people focused.

I love the discovery phase of the design process because it enables the (sometimes inconvenient) truth or the real pain points for customers to be central to the process. If you invest well in this phase, when later you are posed with “those personas are way too farfetched, no one’s life is that difficult” you can reassure everyone involved that, as challenging as it may be, the process reflects the lived experience of the people we are here to serve.

Living Well webinar

‘Living Well’ is a long-term programme that is answering the question ‘how can we support our customers to live well for longer?’ and understanding the lives, wants, needs and pain points of our older customers was a key part of the discovery phase.

If you want to hear more about how we have approached this project and how we are keeping customers lived experience at the heart of the design process, get in touch with the HiLab team or join us for the HAPPI Hour we are hosting on 25 January at 4pm.

For more information and to sign up: http://ow.ly/4pCB50HutCL