Decorative. Photos of 3 people in squares with fake text under them to represent personas.

Demographic data is dead: Why you should be using circumstance-based personas instead

Personas can be a great tool to have in your UX toolkit, but currently, there’s a big problem with the data we use in personas.

Personas are a nifty resource to reference throughout your design process, focusing on what your user needs. When used right they are fluid, spark empathy and can inform the design decisions you make.

Personas come from an old marketing technique and unfortunately, are often rooted in short-sighted, over-simplified images of who your users are; essentially, they verge on stereotypes. Old habits die hard and I regularly see personas that are based on demographic information and unverified assumptions. This is a pretty big UX no-no because (in pretty much all instances) a user’s experience isn’t defined by their sex, age or any other demographic data.

In trying to create an image of our users with demographic data, our design judgement is clouded and we trick ourselves into creating designs that are seeped in characteristic biases. These demographic-based personas suggest that 45-year-old male middle-class Brian will never experience the same issues stopping them from achieving their goal as 19-year-old female working-class Candice, but your user research will show that this simply isn’t the case.

Let’s look at this in action for a journey, such as comparing car insurance, we’ll stick with my two examples of Brian, 45, and Candice, 19, who based on demographic data would suggest they have completely different experiences, possibly because it’s well known that young people often pay a high premium for car insurance. In reality, that’s not necessarily true, user research shows that Brian only recently qualified as a driver with only a few years of driving experience, essentially putting him in the exact same position as young driver Candice. In this scenario, both users are new, inexperienced drivers and will face similar challenges when comparing and buying car insurance.

Personas are not a static definition of who your users are because every users’ circumstances and life experiences are different; that’s why demographic data doesn’t belong in them. As a UX designer, research, writer or similar, you must acknowledge the nuances of life that impact, change and subvert your users’ perspective and needs.

We’ve established our users aren’t defined by a certain set of characteristics or demographic data, nor are they static resources. They’re also not defined by their interactions or behaviours, i.e. whether they rely on the reviews to buy a product or not; this behaviour doesn’t differentiate one persona from another type of persona. Different personas can both read and value product reviews to help them make a decision.

What makes your users different are their circumstances because their circumstances affect how they interact with your product. More specifically, users’ circumstances affect their goals and reasons for using your product and in turn their experience.

For example, users’ interacting with a car insurance website are not defined by…

❌ how many big-name brands are available to choose from

❌ how many star ratings an insurer has

❌ whether they need to instal a ‘black box’ on a policy

Instead, how they use experience that journey is heavily influenced by their circumstances such as…

✅ how long they’ve been driving

✅ how many times they’ve compared insurance before

✅ if they have any previous claims or convictions

If you don’t know the different goals your users have, you need to get back in front of your users and interview them. Find out who they are and what they’re trying to do when using your product. I suggest using Nielsen Norman Group’s empathy map to keep you focused and to draw out their goals.

Your personas need to be dynamic and fluid, changing in line with your user research, so they can accurately reflect the journey your user is going on. Every time you run research or any testing, update your personas to see if new goals, needs or behaviours are emerging due to circumstances.

Dynamic personas account for the changes in your user’s mindset or their specific situation. In turn, these changes affect their experience with your product. Going back to the car insurance example, if a user with over 20 years of driving experience is involved in a small road traffic collision, that flips their experience and interaction with car insurance. Think about it, what was a pretty standard task and journey for them has increased in frustration and difficulty because they now need to provide extra information about the claims and/or convictions due to the collision, which could result in sky-rocketed prices.

The suddenness in which your users can switch and flow between personas means it can be useful to map your personas onto a scale, matrix or similar. How you map them depends on your users’ mindset and capabilities, for example, how good or experienced they are at a certain skill and/or their level of confidence.

A 2 by 2 grid mapping 3 car insurance users against having lots of little experience driving versus how they calm or frustrated they feel about car insurance. User 1 ‘New driver’ is mapped as little experience and frustrated. User 2 ‘Long term driver’ is mapped as experienced and calm. User 3 ‘Older driver’ is mapped as highly experienced but frustrated.

If you have an idea of what the connecting scale is between your product’s proposition and your user goals, then skip ahead to the next section. If you’re a bit stuck, then stay with me. The whole purpose of this approach is that it can be applied to (pretty much) any user experience, any product. So, what you need to do now is take a step back and answer these questions:

  • what are your users’ goals? (we addressed this before in ‘New way to approach to personas’)
  • what has the biggest impact on how your user interacts with your product?
  • how does your user feel about (using) your product?

By answering these, you’ll find a couple of ways you can map your personas. It depends on the product, but you’ll likely find the answers to the second and third questions will determine the scale or matrix you end up creating.

Reframing personas onto a scale or matrix makes them relatable and scalable to a larger stakeholder audience and turns them into a strong tool for creating empathy. Where your map accurately reflects users changing circumstances, it brings to life how the same situation could easily affect your stakeholders too. All of a sudden, your stakeholders will be able to better understand your users. The map encourages your stakeholders to see themselves moving through the alternative personas over their lifetime as their circumstances shift and change. Visualising the ease and fluidity of how a user’s circumstances change through a scale or matrix is key to sharing personas with teams and creating genuine empathy.

The same 2 by 2 grid is used as before but this time it includes the circumstances that cause them to move between levels of frustration or driving experience, such as becoming a convicted driver. Other circumstances included are a newly qualified driver taking an extra driving qualification, a long term driver loosing their no claims discount, and an elderly driver being required to have their licence checks and renewed regularly.

An additional benefit of mapping these personas is that it increases stakeholder trust in the design decisions you make and the tests or work you prioritise. If your stakeholders understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, the work produced will be of a higher quality.

Bonus tip! When creating your personas, also take into consideration how frequently they will use your product. Someone buying clothes online may do that every month so the patterns and usability of your product are more ingrained and standard to them. Whereas the same user will probably compare car insurance once a year, meaning there’s much more room for user error, misunderstanding and forgetfulness. The larger the gap in time is between your users interacting with your product, the more different their needs are. This makes your personas more helpful as a guide, they remind you of what your users need, for example, they may need certain terminology explained to them or more information provided upfront.

If there is anything you can take away from this article, it’s this:

  • Get rid of demographic data, it limits your perspective and creativity as a designer
  • Dig deep into your users’ circumstances and goals
  • Update your personas regularly with research
  • Map your different personas onto a scale or matrix to visualise how your users can be in flux
  • Ignite empathy from stakeholders with your personas

Now you have your new, dynamic personas based on circumstances and how they grow and change, you can use them to guide your design process and decisions. But, remember, personas don’t hold all the answers and sometimes you will have to work against them.

Personas are a guide, they’re an amalgamation of all the data, qualitative insight and domain or market knowledge you have and are there to inform - not stipulate - the design decisions you make. They are a crucial layer to the experience you provide your users, so pay them adequate time and attention to make sure they’re adaptable, comprehensive and unbiased.

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Emily Cheshire

I’m Emily (she/her) a Senior UX Designer at cinch, I talk about that. Also, I’m relentless about accessibility & inclusive design.