Rethinking personas in government

National Archives Digital Personas
Source: U.S. National Archives

Personas are an important tool used in human-centered design to help a service provider better understand the needs of the intended users.

Rather than basing service design on whimsical assumptions, personas aim to keep the focus on specific user types and their respective needs so that their particular tasks or problems can be effectively addressed and resolved in the context of real people needs.

Personas can and should be developed for any government service used by the public, from digital to in-person experiences, whether it’s an information-oriented website or application process. They are a fundamental component of human-centered public service design.

As 18F explains when describing the importance of personas, they “ground design in reality by forcing us to consider the goals, behaviors, and pain points of the people affected by our design decisions. Unlike marketing personas based on demographics or marketability, design personas describe how someone accomplishes goals.”

According to Usability.gov, effective personas:

  • Represent a major user group for your website
  • Express and focus on the major needs and expectations of the most important user groups
  • Give a clear picture of the user’s expectations and how they’re likely to use the site
  • Aid in uncovering universal features and functionality
  • Describe real people with backgrounds, goals, and values

Also from Usability.gov, benefits of personas include:

  • Stakeholders and leaders evaluate new site feature ideas
  • Information architects develop informed wireframes, interface behaviors, and labeling
  • Designers create the overall look and feel of the website
  • System engineers/developers decide which approaches to take based on user behaviors
  • Copy writers ensure site content is written to the appropriate audiences

Government agencies including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the Government of New Zealand and others rely on personas as part of an increasingly growing human-centered public service design movement.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s must-read book, “Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech,” brought to light for me the unintended consequenses of traditional aspects of personas — photo, gender, age, hometown — how these can cause bias or confusion for service designers, and why they should be eliminated from the practice, particularly within the public sector.

In “Technically Wrong,” Wachter-Boettcher shares an anecdote of working with a client, and how the persona process they went through caused her to rethink these traditional components. At one point, one person suggested the CEO persona, a “fortyish black woman,” wasn’t realistic in their particular industry, while another person had a problem with one that described a “divorced black woman in a low-level job.”

Wachter-Boettcher writes:

But what they missed — because, I recognize now, our personas encouraged them to miss it — was that demographics weren’t the point. Differing motivations and challenges were the real drivers behind what these people wanted and how they interacted with the organization.

We thought adding photos, genders, ages, and hometowns would give our personas a more realistic feel. And they did–just not the way we intended. Rather than helping folks connect with these people, the personas encouraged the team to assume that demographic information drove motivations–that, say, young women tended to be highly engaged, so they should produce content targeted at young women.

Thankfully, our clients’ disagreement over the right way to present race turned into a rethinking of our whole approach. Pretty soon, we’d removed all the stock photos and replaced them with icons of people working–giving presentations, sitting nose-deep in research materials, that sort of thing.

I haven’t attached a photo to a persona since.

Sunlight Foundation led an excercise in open data personas with several cities and released an open data user personas spreadsheet in May. One of the participating cities, Downey, Calif., adopted an approach similar to Wachter-Boettcher’s (though still retaining age, hometown) that focused less on demographics, but more on user type and task.

Example:

Resident problem-solving (low-medium community impact, medium-high data skills): This person has a personal goal that they want to achieve, whether it’s improving the local ecological environment or getting a bike lane built in their neighborhood. They generally have a small-scale project or goal in mind, but they need information to make their case.

Effective use of personas must be taken seriously when designing truly inclusive public services. As more government leaders adopt human-centered practices into public sector design thinking processes, it’s important to hold deep focus on the intended objective of the end user.

Ultimately, practices such as empathy mapping, quantitative data reviews and engaging with real users are critical, however, simple elimination of traditional demographic indicators while creating personas could go a long way towards government best serving the public at large.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and co-founder/CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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