The persona method from theoretical foundations to psychological mechanisms

Nour Abdeljaoued
5 min readOct 25, 2020

In continuity with the previous article regarding the user-centric design process. As promised, we are going to explore a method each time.

Since the ideation phase is a master phase, it is considered as the cornerstone of this process, this article will focus on a method of this phase where we give meaning to the information collected on users, their activities and the context it is the persona .

Theoretical foundations of the personas method

The term “persona” comes from the Latin “personare” which means “to speak through”, this notion refers to the mask worn by the actors to be able to adopt the appearance of the character, to carry the voice during a performance and to show themselves from a perspective. social rewarding (Bolea, 2016).

In 1999, Cooper, defined this method for the first time during an interactive system design, according to him most of his project is defined on a too vague basis containing needs, abstract entities which is why he wanted to script his target user based on an ethnographic approach he named Persona.

Cooper re-mobilized the concept in the 2000s and applied it to the characterization of future users of software under design. Cooper’s idea is simple, he states that referring to one person that is too generic leads designers to imagine products, services, and systems that, when designed for everyone, ultimately aren’t right for anyone.

Process for creating Personas profiles according to Goodwin 2008

The persona method within the design team

The usefulness of the persona method rests on the spirit of synthesis of the designers which will lead to defining a common version of the knowledge relating to future users, it organizes the various social, technical and financial constraints in order to evoke all the possibilities that the user may face during his journey of use (Pruitt, Adlin, 2005).

Personas are generally presented as a means of representing a detailed model of a typical user, the latter is modeled in a condensed form possessing an identity, a human appearance and a social, affective and cognitive configuration.These user models created by the design team are intended to make it easier to understand the goals, motivations and behaviors of people who will use the product (Spool, 2007).

Personas serve as well as a communication tool between the members of a design project, the said method strengthens the exchange and communication within the team since they bring together the designers around a shared vision of the identity, expectations and needs of targeted users.
The persona is also an intellectual mediating tool, which aims to represent knowledge about future users, gathered during the exploration phase. Thanks to this representation, communication within the design team will be smoother and decision-making will be faster.

A study carried out in 2012 by Brangier, reveals that the use of personas during a design project, ensures, on one hand , the improvement and the quantity of the ideas generated, on the other hand it promotes fluidity, flexibility, elaboration and originality.

Personas and psychological mechanisms

In order to work properly, the persona method uses several psychological mechanisms (Bornet, Brangier; 2013), which allow designers to imagine needs and future uses. We will highlight these three mechanisms, the first is empathy and theory of mind, the second is stereotyping theory and the third is emotion and creativity.

Empathy in this context brings an emotional response, recognition and understanding of the mental states of others. This psychological phenomenon mobilizes three main elements which interact dynamically; first,the ability to sense and represent the emotions and feelings of others, second, the ability to adopt the perspective of others, through a mechanism of mental flexibility, and finally the distinction between self and others (Hochmann, 2012).
Empathy is essential since, thanks to it, designers are able to reveal the “why” of the actions, choices and decisions of target users, which will allow and facilitate the proactive design of real needs, which are often difficult to understand, perceive and articulate for users.

While theory of mind, refers to the ability to predict the behavior of others. According to this theory, human beings are based on a logic of the general functioning of the mind, made up of concepts and operating rules, which individuals apply when they seek to understand others (Jorland, 2004).
These two mechanisms are used by designers who use the persona method, in order to understand the expectations of future users and to anticipate their behavior .

The theory of stereotypes is based on the simplified categorization of others, and on a principle of cognitive economy, allowing individuals to quickly access an abridged representation of a reality. In fact, personas rarely trace real or existing people, but seek to apprehend potential users who, by definition, will not exist until the product has been designed or the service marketed .

Regarding emotion and creativity, the use of personas is a support for creativity, because the process by which a person becomes aware of a problem, a difficulty or a knowledge gap, for which it cannot find a learned or known solution; it seeks possible solutions by putting forward hypotheses; it evaluates, tests or modifies those assumptions and communicates the results. Also the persona is a mechanism used to create a positive emotional state in designers that will arouse their creativity and broadening of minds (Norman, 2012).

To sum it up personas are not intended to be an exhaustive scientific taxonomy of all possible user types, but they are carefully categorized based on a multitude of psychological, demographic, and behavioral variables. Making design decisions with dozens or hundreds of types of people in mind would quickly become difficult to manage. Personas are of interest since they are memorable, actionable, and distinct from each other, they summarize the main needs of different audience segments so that designers can remember and empathize with them easily.

We will discuss in further details the implementation of personas and it’s different approach in later articles.

Till next time please be safe . :)

Bibliographic references

Bolea, Ștefan. (2016). The Persona and the Shadow in Analytic Psychology and Existential Philosophy. Philobiblon, 21.

Bornet, C., & Brangier, E. (2013). La méthode des personas : Principes, intérêts et limites. Bulletin de psychologie, Numéro 524(2), 115‑134.

Cooper, A. (2007). About Face 3 : The essentials of interaction design | Semantic Scholar.

Goodwin, K. (2008). Getting From Research to Personas : Harnessing the Power of Data

Jorland, G. (2004). L’empathie, histoire d’un concept. L’Empathie, 19‑49.

Norman, D. (2012). Design émotionnel.Pourquoi aimons-nous ou détestons nous les objets qui nous entourenet (De Boeck).

Pruitt, J., & Grudin, J. (2003). Personas : Practice and theory. Proceedings of the 2003 Conference on Designing for User Experiences — DUX ’03, 1.

Pruitt, J., & Adlin, T. (2005). The Persona Lifecycle : Keeping People in Mind Throughout Product Design. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers Inc.

Spool, J. (2007). Three Important Benefits of Personas. UX Articles by UIE.