Demographic Personas

With its feathered haircuts, tight-fitting pant suits, and abundant chest hair, the long-running game show, The Dating Game, filled American TV screens and living rooms with bawdy singles and hopeless romantics for over three decades. It ran from 1965 to 2000. It started in the Age of Aquarius and ended in the Internet Age, thereby amounting to the longest-running, most-viewed study on dating habits, people, and personas.

The show’s format was simple: an attractive date-seeker sat behind a wall and asked potential bachelors their opinions on dating. Thought-provoking questions such as, “What would you do to show this girl a good time?” were met with equally cringe-worthy answers, ranging from promises of foot rubs to promises of stalking. Through a cloud of lewd exchanges and the haze of Jovan Musk Oil, a winning contestant would finally emerge. Studio audiences would laugh and revel at the date-seeker’s apparent surprise in her choice of bachelor. Frequently, eager faces showing anticipation were drained of excitement and immediately replaced by apprehension upon the reveal.

We could all empathize with the plight of both the date-seeker and contestant. After all, imagining an ideal mate is a difficult exercise. Give it a try. Is she or he older than you? How does this person spend her or his day? Perhaps she’s a chemist. Perhaps he’s a carny. Is she serious? Is he funny?

Your responses may describe a remarkable person: someone who recites poetry while chopping down trees; someone who looks like a runway model but works as an astrophysicist. You may describe an ordinary person: someone who listens to sports radio while mowing the lawn; someone who looks like an accountant and works as… an accountant. Regardless of whom you describe, you describe the attributes and behaviors of a human being. You describe a persona.

An ideal persona is based on a real person whose attributes and behaviors match a particular population’s. However, an individual person rarely reflects the diversity of an entire population, leading us to make sampling errors (see Chapter 33, “Quantitative Research”). Lumberjack poets and astrophysicist-supermodels be damned.

Lumberjack poets and astrophysicist-supermodels be damned.

Often, a demographic persona more faithfully represents the entirety of a population. A common criticism of such personas is that they are make-believe. Although the people we describe may be figments of our imagination, everything about them is based on facts. Similar to our ideal mate, a persona may only exist within the confines of our descriptions. However, we can still imagine how this person would interact within our physical world. Our thespian lumberjack may be a man who enjoys beat poetry by day. Our Heidi-Klum–Stephen-Hawking lovechild may be a woman who counts the stars at night. We prove or disprove these attributes and behaviors through research data.

A demographic persona is a human-shaped container of data. In this container, we place the attributes of a person, such as age, gender, and annual income. We also place behaviors, such as “recites poetry,” “chops down trees,” and “shops for tight-fitting pantsuits.” How do we determine which attributes and behaviors to include? We only include data supported by research. Anything short of research is merely a daydream.

A demographic persona is a human-shaped container of data.

For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lumberjacks tend to be male and around 45 years old (97.9% male workforce, median age 44.9). Furthermore, the 2003 National Assessment on Adult Literacy shows a high literacy rate among 40–49 year olds. So, we now have support for the likelihood that our thespian lumberjack is male and can read. Yet, when we compare these numbers to the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, we see that only 6.7% of Americans have read a book of poetry in the past year. Finding a lumberjack that recites poetry while chopping down trees would indeed be remarkable—perhaps even statistically improbable. Research on our astrophysicist-supermodel may lead us to strong evidence of a correlation between astrophysics and fashion modeling, or disprove it entirely. Either result requires research data; our biases, especially as they pertain to gender and social class, are too pervasive to go unchecked.

Remarkable personas are often referred to as an “edge-case”: a persona that may be true but is often statistically insignificant. When we develop personas, we wish to describe the significant attributes and behaviors of a population, but we must first decide if the persona will be aspirational or historical.

Historical vs. aspirational personas

An often-overlooked part of creating personas is determining if a persona is historical or aspirational. Historical personas comprise users who used a product in the past. Aspirational personas comprise potential new users. This differentiation may seem to be trivial, but it forms the basis for many future decisions.

For example, let’s say you created a dating app. Your app allows users to quickly find eligible singles within a 500-foot radius. The app is a few years old, and you have a wealth of analytic information about its use. Research data may indicate the following attributes and behaviors of a prior user:

  • 18–34-year-old female
  • Lives in high-population urban area
  • Frequently visits nightclubs and dines at restaurants

This historic persona may align well with the app you created. This persona indicates a young woman who frequently finds herself within a 500-foot radius of other eligible singles, as she travels between nightclubs and restaurants in an urban setting.

Now, let’s create an aspirational persona. We wish to reach a user with the following attributes and behaviors:

  • 18–34-year-old male
  • Lives in medium-population suburban area
  • Occasionally dines at restaurants

Our research data may show that men matching these attributes and behaviors exist; therefore, our aspirational persona is valid. However, this hypothetical person would likely interact with our dating app in very different ways than our historical persona. The aspirational persona points to a young man who rarely finds himself within a 500-foot radius of other eligible singles because he dines at restaurants in a suburban setting only occasionally. He may never realize the complete benefits of your app.

The example used three attributes to indicate a potential pitfall: a persona may never realize the app’s benefits. But, we rarely get a full picture of a person through such limited information. Just like a real person, a persona becomes more alive to us the more we know about it. A persona describes a life.

So far, our personas only include a few attributes and behaviors. Age and location are included in many personas, but these are only the start. Access to healthcare, business ownership, citizenship status, country of origin, device ownership, disability, education, employment status, ethnicity/race, sex, gender identity, gun ownership, home ownership, income, languages spoken, languages spoken in the household, marital status, military service, number of children, number of siblings, pet ownership, political party affiliation, religious denomination, religious service attendance, sexual preference, shopping habits, social networking usage, technical aptitudes, trust in government, union membership, and vehicle ownership, to name just a few. If episodes of The Dating Game had covered such an exhaustive list of data, they wouldn’t have ended with so many surprises.

Exaggeration and accuracy

If you’ve ever joined an online dating service, you’ve experienced the process of creating a persona. It was your dating bio. In it, you likely described a few of your attributes: your age, your height, and an optimistic approximation of your weight. You ran a spell check. You uploaded the best picture of yourself. You probably also described several of your behaviors: what you do in the morning, during the day, and at night.

Now imagine the bio you would write if you weren’t limited by reality. You recite poetry in the morning. You work as a runway model during the day. You map the stars at night. You are your ideal age. You are the perfect height and weight. You are exactly as you wish to be. It is a fun exercise to do, but perhaps not one backed by evidence.

You may enjoy poetry but only read it a few times a year. Your modeling career is limited to posing in the bathroom mirror. You can peer into the night sky and find the Big Dipper—or was that the little one? Reality has a way of making us all remarkably average. This is our real bio; this is our persona.

Because software creators may use personas to support their work, attributes and behaviors are sometimes inadvertently—or intentionally—exaggerated to make personas appear more attractive. Incomes are increased. Ages are adjusted. Engagement is elevated. Interest is enhanced. Once historical personas inflate into aspirational ones. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a runway model that moonlights as an astrophysicist? However, we should avoid such exaggerations, not only because such personas are often inaccurate, but also because this inaccuracy bleeds into the resulting design of the software products we build.

A common exaggeration is people’s interest in a new product. It often manifests itself in the extraordinary time and effort they will commit to a product that offers them no immediate value. For example, the belief that people inherently want to explore websites. They don’t. The default position toward most websites in a person’s mind is apathy. A person is often no more likely to explore a website than they are to explore a dark room. You need to shed a bit of light on something or else people simply close the door and walk away. Personas should reflect apathy as much as they reflect interest, because only then can we accurately estimate how to change these default positions into more beneficial behaviors. If we exaggerate, we will never design solutions that accurately meet users’ needs. We need to know where people stand before we guide them somewhere else.

The default position toward most websites in a person’s mind is apathy.

When we design experiences, we must always consider the personas of users. They experience the world, as well as what we create for them, in different ways. For an experience may delight one person, outrage a second, and go unnoticed by a third. We sometimes find ourselves sitting behind a wall of ignorance, blinded by the stage lights of our projects’ demands, unable to see users for whom they are and what they truly want. The questions we ask—and the answers personas give—allow us to imagine these hypothetical people and fulfill their needs. Will they fall in love with what we create, or will the romance never start? The answer often lies in our ability to transform research into understanding, and a persona into a person.

Key Takeaways

  • A demographic persona is a human-shaped container of data.
  • Personas not backed by evidence are daydreams.
  • Decide if a persona is historical or aspirational.
  • Avoid exaggeration, especially as it pertains to interest in your product.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Is the persona historical or aspirational?
  • Have I exaggerated positive attributes of the persona?
  • Have I deemphasized common and negative attributes of the persona?
  • Is the persona representative of the target population?
  • Can I find real people within the target population who match the persona?
  • Does the persona(s) account for the diversity contained within a target population?