Putting a Face to the Facts

Our thoughts on using photography and demographics in persona representations

There has been a lot of debate recently over the use of real (and by real, I mean stock) photographs vs. more generic avatars to represent user personas. Some good arguments have been made from both camps and it’s not my intent to rehash those. Rather I thought I’d share why we (almost always) use real photographs in the personas that DEFT develops.

Personas are a device used to represent real users of a software or interactive experience. They were introduced in Alan Cooper’s 1998 book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, and their popularity has really exploded in recent years as user experience professionals have adopted persona-based strategy and design. Rather than build experiences with one’s own preferences and behaviors in mind – “I never read white papers” – personas help us to tailor the experience to the relevant audience – “this scientist regularly reads white papers.”

But lets dig a little deeper. What do personas mean to us at DEFT, and more importantly to our clients? We see them as a way to really connect with your key audiences, and connection takes more than facts. Don’t get me wrong, our personas are built on a ton of research and data, but for us that is not enough. Data helps us build knowledge about our audiences, persona representations help us build empathy for them.

For example, Persona A, a tech savvy purchasing manager at a small manufacturing firm, frequently visits your website to order more widgets on behalf of the company. Persona A makes decisions independently, but uses his/her peers and third party sites to evaluate and compare vendors. These are the facts.

But to have empathy with Persona A, it really helps to give her a name and a face. Meet Anne…

Anne’s Persona

Anne is 32 years old and has her Bachelors Degree in Communications. She lives in York, PA.

Anne cares deeply about performing well in her job, and in order to do that she needs information that helps her understand why your product will serve her company best.

Now add the facts…

This very simplified example provides a glimpse into the way that added demographics create a picture for us as we design content and experiences tailored to Anne. Is every person Anne represents female, 32 and from York, PA? Of course not! That’s not really the point. Those demographics don’t define behaviors, they do, however, put a face and name to the facts.

Since personas are a means to help marketers reach an end, I believe that there are no right or wrong answers in this debate. It depends what you’re using your personas for, and whether the empathy element is more of a distraction than helpful. We have certainly made exceptions to our process where warranted, and continue to adapt and refine our persona representations. What I can say is that, for the foreseeable future though, DEFT personas are more than likely going to have “real” faces.

What are your thoughts?