personas and typification

When someone says “80% of the benefit is in the conversation, we have an interesting “heads up” – a trigger for the alert that says – “aha – so whatever it is they are talking around is not the same as what they are talking about.” That is, they have not yet succeeded in naming the outcome for their conversation – what they have named – the thing their conversation is revolving around – is a transitional object, a tool that lets them handle the knowledge space.

This is not an unusual thing. We are most familiar with the sentiment in the context of planning: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” [Eisenhower]. So what is it that is actually produced that makes us not only persist in but value the behaviour of planning even in the heat of war?

In business as in war, the life is in the conversation, but it is the outcome that you are paid for. In both cases the product is a “mental fit-out”, a readiness to respond. In the case of planning in volatile contexts it includes being ready for contingencies, to think through responses while there is time to think them through, so responses can be rapid.

I most recently encountered this phenomenon when doing some online research (opinion surfing?) on personas and read Tamara Adlins’ Corporate Underpants response to Steve Portigal. What interested me is that she said, yet again but in a concise string of words: “80% of the benefit from personas comes from just creating them.”

So what is the real mental product from persona thinking, if its not to just be designerly self-gratification?

The desired outcome of persona thinking is a typification. It is the addition to our mental models of “human beings and their expected behaviours and our suitable responses” another model or two.

The following excerpts on typification are from Sociologyindex, Sociology Books 2009 :

“Typification is typical social construction based on standard assumptions.Alfred Schutz (1899-1959), a phenomenologist, suggests that in all of our encounters with others, with the exception of ‘we-relationships’ (the most intimate of relationships), we experience and understand the other in terms of ideal types. In the process of typification we form a construct of a typical way of acting, assume typical underlying motivations or personality. For example we make prior assumptions about the personalities and behaviour of a doctor, priest or judge. Ethnomethodologists have studied the use of this process of typification as a tool for understanding how people such as coroners, prosecutors, police officers and others achieve a sense of concreteness and predictability in their work. Coroners for example, may operate with a sense of a typical suicide, prosecutors with a sense of a ‘normal’ crime of child abuse, police officers with a sense of the ‘normal’ or typical resident of a particular neighborhood.”

It is probably not radical to use persona and typification in the same breath. My point is that the persona construction process is not an end in itself – the end is the construction of the typification in the minds of those who must continue the design task. And where that is a large of time/spce discontinuous group, the effort put into personas and the conversation around personas must be increased greatly. Indeed, we now focus on the persona creation as a conversational PROCESS, not an object, and we have a criteria for a good persona process – does it leave functioning typifications in the intended audiences minds.

If the people who are getting your personas are getting them not to participate in design decisionmaking but to be persuaded you haven’t been idle, or to exteriorise the mysteries of design, then you have a different object of design. gave me this useful abstract for free:

“Typification, Typologies, and Sociological Theory John C. McKinney Social Forces, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Sep., 1969),
Abstract: Typification, perceiving the world and structuring it by means of types and typologies, is depicted as an essential and intrinsic aspect of the basic orientation of actors to their situations. It is important for structuring the “self,” conceptualizing “roles,” and as a necessary feature of institutionalization and the development of social structure. Two basic orders of types are distinguished: the existential type, developed by participants in social systems, and the constructed type, formulated by the social scientist for purposes of explicating those social systems. All typification is viewed as consisting in the pragmatic reduction and equalization of attributes relevant to the particular purpose at hand for which the type has been formed, and involves disregarding those individual differences of the typified objects that are not relevant to such a purpose. It is asserted that types and typologies are ubiquitous, both in everyday social life and in the language of the social sciences. It is held that despite the omnipresence of typologizing in social inquiry it remains a relatively “underdeveloped” aspect of methodology generally. It is noted that a primary function of types and typologies is to identify, simplify, and order data so that they may be described in terms which make them comparable. An exploration of selected theoretical and methodological issues is conducted with respect to the construction and utilization of typologies, emphasizing problems of nominalism versus realism, ethnomethodology, social morphology, specification of the operations performed in the construction of types and the relation to general social theory, with particular reference to the social system as a construct.”

In 1969 this was an “underdeveloped aspect of methodology”. And that stays true in practice based on all my readings. And it will remain so until we focus on designing personas for the cognitive transformations we want to accomplish in “distributed designers”. “Distributed designers are typically and increasingly those in corporations who must participate in design acts that are spread across time and space but are based on understanding the same user set.

And a passing comment on one of the major concerns that seems to be voices about the miscarriage of personas. Its not suprising that if we don’t know why we are doing them, and move our personas around as cardboard cutouts, that we raise the spectre of stereotyping and debasing the user profile.

What stops normal typification from being stereotyping is

a) It is formed by personal encounters – even if they are carefully reconstructed ones

b) It has no necessary designation of the other as inferior. Notice that our typification of “doctors priests and judges” (above) is not usually one of inferiority (though it may be adversarial)

Stereotypes provide a way to be shallow. Personas provide a way of holding depth


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