Personas Alone Can't Help Teams Achieve Empathy

Personas are frequently cited as helping development teams achieve empathy for their users.

It's worth noting that achieving empathy isn't as easy as some might suggest. It's means much more than just considering the user's perspective; it requires a concerted effort to imagine the world through the user's eyes. Real empathy requires effort and even training.

Personas are intended to facilitate that; yet, personas are sometimes constructed with little thought or care as to why or how they should actually be crafted and used. They've just become part of the process—almost a ritual more than a tool. In fact, it's questionable whether or not personas facilitate empathy at all. According to one (admittedly limited) academic study, personas didn't help its student participants overcome "egocentric anchoring": the tendency to use the self as the primary reference point for evaluating the perspectives of others. The students reduced the personas down to a handful of core attributes, and fixated most heavily on those aspects that marked the personas as "different"—hardly putting themselves in the shoes of their users. When considering personas that they perceived as being part of their "in group," the students defaulted back to their own needs as their primary reference.[^4] Particularly elusive was "affective" empathy—an emotional connection to the user being described by the persona.

There is also the risk that the creation and use of personas provides the design team with false assurance that "empathy" has taken place, even if it hasn't. In other words, the persona becomes a box to check so the team can performatively convince itself that it's doing user-centric work.


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Citation

Haag, Maren, and Nicola Marsden. “Exploring Personas as a Method to Foster Empathy in Student IT Design Teams.” International Journal of Technology and Design Education, April 24, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10798-018-9452-5.


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