In this provocation, we problematize the use of personas as an interaction design method. We explore whether the use of personas within design processes prevents meaningful participation, with reference to research with third-sector organizations in the United Kingdom.
Personas should help designers and developers to empathize with the people they are designing for, but we find that their use is biopolitical, turning singular experiences into static, reusable design resources.
We call for a research agenda focused on the ways design processes prevent participation, encode power relations, and entrench marginalization.
Personas are a widely established interaction design method, intended to make design processes more user-centric and used by researchers and large businesses (like Spotify) alike.
They enable designers and developers to envision specific, archetypal users of their intended creation, and explore ways these users might interact with it, potentially changing the design in light of this.
Yet what if the use of personas actually prevents people having a voice and role in shaping a given design? Moreover, what if the use of personas actually entrenches existing hierarchies into designs.
Using two case studies, we explore how personas prevent meaningful participation, and find that their use is biopolitical, based on “trying to make real people behave as if they were constructed archetypes” rather than designing for the complexity of lived experience.
In one case, personas were made of workers in a charity. The personas seemed to communicate the concerns of senior management rather than the experiences of workers. The power relations in the design process guided the persona creation much more than people’s experiences.
If used carefully and reflexively, it is likely possible to use personas in a positive way –perhaps as a method of eliciting participant’s perceptions or lifeworlds. We question, however, if personas can be seen as an effective means of participation.
Personas rarely change, and cannot speak or grow like living, breathing people. They are biopolitical, static remnants of a singular process, and always focused on filtering through design requirements.
Yet personas are just one way in which design processes can prevent participation, encode power relations, and entrench marginalization.
People’s lives are always complex and shifting. Personas render them static by capturing a snapshot, filtering them through the lens of design requirements, the designer’s perceptions, and the capital/power dynamics of the design process. What might we understand if we applied the biopolitical lens to other methods?
Read the paper: Can Personas Speak? Biopolitics in Design Processes
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