It is widely accepted that user-centred design must be grounded in a comprehensive understanding of – you guessed it – your users! Traditionally, personas have been one of the main tools used to capture this information, but recently, more and more organisations have been turning to mindsets. So, do both offer the same benefits, and when should they be used?
Persona: A single fictional character representing the needs of a user group.
In the 1990s, it’s probably fair to say that many design teams had never spoken to their users, and possibly didn’t even know who they were. Recognising this problem, Alan Cooper (a Software Designer and Programmer) created the concept of personas to discourage teams from designing using assumptions and an ‘elastic’ view of their audience that could change from day to day. Consequently, personas were established as a simple, yet powerful design and communication tool.
Effective personas capture the needs, behaviours, goals and pain-points of a user group, under the pretext of a single individual. They should be highly relevant to the product or service being developed and based on real insights from user research. Typically, three to six personas can efficiently capture a target audience, highlighting both themes and similarities that should be considered during product development.
Mindset: A person’s way of thinking and their opinions.
Whilst personas have received increasing scrutiny (read on to find out why) over the last few years, mindsets have often stepped in to take their place. As an arguably less established tool, we’ve seen them take several forms, but are mostly commonly structured on a quadrant, around two spectrums representing key user behaviours or traits.
As with personas, a group of mindsets should collectively account for a full audience, though they usually remain agnostic of a specific product or service. The detail behind each mindset includes user attitudes, behaviours and needs, as well as the drivers for these (which may vary) and potential evolution of the mindset in the future. In fact, they’re very similar to personas, but without the bio!
So, when does each approach succeed and fail?
Static vs. Evolving
I recently read that personas are ‘immune to change’ as they present as finished artefacts, rather than growing with an experience. Whilst personas should be positioned as an evolving tool that is enriched through ongoing research, it is true that they can appear as fixed users – a perception that is difficult to change. Similar behaviours can also span across several personas, meaning you must delve into the detail to discover the nuances.
On the other hand, presenting mindsets on continuums reflects the fluidity with which users can move between groups, as attitudes and behaviours shift over time or in different contexts. As a result, they can be used to map and influence paths of thinking, whilst ensuring products are developed in line with corresponding needs. For example, a business may want to push those with a cautious mindset to become more confident, using detailed insights to better understand how to get them there. Some mindsets even capture short and long-term goals as part of the artefact.
Relatable vs. Abstract
Many practitioners dislike that personas include a high-level biography and image of the ‘user’. This is because they believe demographics encourage stereotyping bias, and often cause confusion with market segments, which are a different tool used to quantify and target different customer groups. We, however, recognise the (proven) benefits of this approach, as it helps to instil empathy by setting user needs in a relatable context. The key is educating teams on how to build and use personas, ensuring they understand that each summarises a user group, that may sit across different demographic segments.
Mindsets are all about attitude and tend to have an impactful, suggestive label that encapsulates this for each group – think ‘Conscious balancers’ or ‘Stuck on a rollercoaster’. However, this lack of specificity is often reflected within the detail of the mindsets themselves, making them difficult to apply to a single experience without additional insight. Whilst we support the need for continuous research, this makes us question the usefulness of the tool as it fails to outline focused user needs.
Old vs. New(ish)
For over 20 years, personas have been a go-to way of communicating key user characteristics and needs, in order to provide a concrete reference during the design process. The tool is recognised across industries, with several studies citing that personas support conceptualisation and increase the quality of designs. However, with time, multiple interpretations of personas have emerged, often going against best-practice principles, and leading to a skewed understanding and scepticism of the method.
Often, we come across teams that have ended up with so many personas, they want to draw a line and start again. One of the advantages of mindsets is that whilst users can move fluidly between groups, the fundamental structure on which they are built is likely to remain the same. As a newer tool, it is less likely to become devalued by misinterpretation and misuse. However, having seen mindsets take many different forms, we believe that clear guidelines on use are still needed.
Whilst personas and mindsets communicate similar insights, they have varying use cases during user-centred design. Mindsets offer a broader view of user thinking and are commonly used as a conversation starter for big concepts, whereas personas provide the granular detail needed to address specific user needs in an experience. In practice, each tool should be selected based on the objectives you are working to, however you shouldn’t be afraid to buck the trend. If you want to combine the best bits from each approach, use both or create your own!
Regardless of which tool(s) you choose to use, here are a few things to remember:
Stakeholders buy-in will always increase when you include them in the process. Make sure that everyone knows why you are building personas or mindsets, who they represent, and how they can be used in everyday work.
User representations must be digestible and memorable in order to be effective. Try to use distinctive visuals, as well as catchy, purpose-orientated names for each user group. This will help them to be recognised and utilised more regularly.
Humans are constantly changing. We change our minds because of the mood we’re in and change our behaviours when there are other people in the room. Understanding and documenting when and why this happens will help you to create impactful solutions.
UX tools are rarely effective in isolation. Personas or mindsets won’t tell you everything that you need to know about your users, and other tools such as empathy maps or customer journeys should be used to complement your understanding of specific experiences.
Treat artefacts as a work in progress and make regular updates using research insights, to refine the detail and reflect changing behaviours and needs. This will ensure that your product or service can evolve in synchronisation with its users.
If you think your organisation could benefit from personas, mindsets, or both,please get in touch to discuss how we can help!