personas and typification.exe

I have suggested (see my blog on Personas and Typification) that the real reason for personas does not lie in their creation at all – it is the role they play in the generation of a standard human apparatus of mind – the typification. We use typifications constantly to sort the world and find our appropriate ways of responding in it.

The difference with personas from our routine human process of typification – that helps us handle huge complexity in the everyday – is that in the context of personas we deliberately construct the typification. Normally they are learnt in the unfolding cut and thrust of life. Normally, I “give cheek” to someone in authority and find out that wasn’t a smart way to behave by their “user response” – they rejected the experience I just gave them and punished me somehow!

And the trickiness of personas in the design community is that the contexts for design are so varied. So what suffices for the construction (or even just the activation) of a typification in the mind of a single designer can be very little and perhaps not even conscious. But when we scale up the need for typification formation we hit two interesting thresholds

a) The first one is when we produce artefacts of our persona conversation that are observable by others who have no investment in the formation of respectful typifications. – and so set up social contexts where the products can be debased. This is what Steve Portigal got fired up about (eg ). It seems that this function of personas is one of the biggest sidetracks.

b) The second problem is not one of abuse or sidetracking. It is the emerging and much more significant problem as design is applied to business systems and processes – Dick Buchanan’s 3rd and 4th order design, getting traction as G K Van patters’ 3D and 4D. It is the problem of scale – that when we use design for very large organisations we create needs for more than one set of design minds to participate in a single design context.


1 designer or set of designers, one problem, nor

1 designer or set of designers, series of problem, nor

1 designer or set of designers, one very large problem, but

Multiple sets of designers distributed in space and time, one very large problem, one design process.

Bokardo alludes to this question of scale in understanding the application of personas (but then gets sidetracked later): “Second, it might be a scale issue. Cooper was working on things like Visual Basic, which is huge. It might have been that there were so many people using it that he had to wrap up that research into something more tidy. … In my personal work, I don’t use personas. I do just what you suggest. I do interviews with real users, and when I talk about them with the design team I use those interviewees names. It’s not rocket science at all…simply saying “Yeah, Suzie complained of that…she said this…” is powerful. At this point it is important to track trends, but I’m not sure they need to be in the form of personas.”

We are at the very opposite end of the spectrum to designing for yourself. I refer to this as the problem of “distributed design”. And it throws up a whole new set of challenges for design thinking that need a steady compass.

I am currently consulting to a substantial Financial services corporation with in excess of a $ trillion funds under management. We are working with customer segments that contain very large populations (the one I am working on with a design team at the moment represents about 700,000 people.) So personas are essential to proceeding with the design of experiences. But that is not the hard part. The hard part is that the current happy band of designers will not be the only ones to ever conceive of products for this segment. And naturally, the business is not interested in the overhead of recreating user encounters for every set of designers every time this segment is addressed.

So we are wrestling not with the quality of personas, but with the quality of a “typification.exe”. We need to leave a legacy, a time capsule of experiential material which will serve the functions a persona achieves in real time in the designers mind – the active creation of a typification so that the design mind is wakened/enacted/engaged in the next set of people tasked to design for this segment. We aren’t saying it all has to be done on paper. We expect to have videos in the pack, and to include some face to face encounters with real people representative of the segment. But we are saying it has to be efficient as well as effective – eg a full single day immersion experience,– then on with the show. Not weeks of work. And not re-inventing the segmentation.


Bokardo also comments: But when you place a very specific picture of a person on that persona while giving it a name, you’ve made it particular again. You’re asking people to treat it as an individual person. You’ve taken the summary and made it specific. This is confusing.

I take it that the reason for a picture of a person is not the reversion to the particulars of individuality, it is the evocation of personality – and that is part of working with the “typification” functions of our brains


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