Personas – why is irrelevant demographic info included? And what’s wrong with doing so?

In my usability class, I often have to tell people that something is what people usually do, AND that I don’t think it is appropriate. Sometimes because it’s not useful; sometimes because the problems go deeper than that.

One of the common elements of personas as used for usability assessment and for design is that they include the fictional user’s demographics. For example, this one is from usability.gov:

persona1

What possible difference does it make to his use of the Economic Research Service that he’s “Married, 3 children, 1 grandchild”? So my first objection is simply that it’s unnecessary information.  But, more than that, this implies that this information IS relevant.  (BTW, it would be illegal to ask those questions on a job application.)

But think about what sort of a mental image this creates.  (The attractive photo helps, too.)  Now take this same person but turn him into a dowdy-looking woman “age 61, single, no children” — NOW what do you think of HER?  Do you think she would also be called, “focused, goal-oriented, strong leadership role”?  C’mon, be honest, not politically correct.

Then think about this: what are the chances that you would see such a persona saying, “Gay male, in a stable relationship”?  Maybe, in California. Try this one: a picture of a black man with dreadlocks saying “gay male, playing the field” — nah, no one would say that.  “Divorced, estranged from his kids”? But then why is a stable hetero relationship important?   But, again, what relevance does this information have? Other than to (1) draw on and (2) perpetuate stereotypes.

BTW, I was insulted when McCain defended Obama by saying “He’s a family man.”  As if having a family makes a person trustworthy.  (Domestic violence, anyone?)  And the corollary would be that, if he were NOT a family man, McCain’s followers’ accusations would be justified?

We’ve fought for decades for equal rights — and to abolish stereotypical language, stories, and jokes from the workplace.  But in the persona-development world, stereotpes are alive and well.

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One response to “Personas – why is irrelevant demographic info included? And what’s wrong with doing so?

  1. I have wondered myself why that information is relevant. I have removed it from the persona templates I am using. I am including Location, Industry and age though.

    Thanks for the article.

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