Respecting new people

Alastair Somerville
5 min readNov 15, 2016


I was running a workshop at UX Ireland last week on sensory/emotional design ideas and mentioned how I like people to write Personas for their new product or service. I’m just writing this article to share and slightly expand on why I think this matters

Why Personas?

Personas are a User Experience (UX) and Service Design (SD) tool that are meant to provide clarity in the design process about who the person who might use the product might be. However, there is no clarity about what Personas are and how they can be constructed.

Personas can be used to predict who future customers might be but also they can be used to explore specific interactions in a service use journey. They can be huge and deep but they can be small and shallow.

Personas can be created from hard data but also from shared imagination. They are as real as millions of recorded transactions can show or as true as hundreds of conversations and observations can prove.

Personas are about creating a character, an avatar for the design team to recognise and have a perspective of a human who they understand and who provides the constraints that all design needs. Personas for users frame the possibilities of what is made.

Personas for products

On the output side of this design process is the product or service. The thing that is made.

My family made steel nails for hundreds of years. We designed better machines to make nails and shipped them around the world. The product was physical: cold headed steel nails. There are many nails and they meet different user needs as they are made to fix together different materials. However, in all those years, our nails did not have any intelligence or knowledge in themselves. They were tools used by people to make furniture, to build buildings, to help decorate homes.

Things are different now. Things are not just things.

A nail does not need a persona because it is simply a product that is used.

The products that many people are designing now are not just things that are used.

The relationship is not of user and tool. It is between intelligences – human and artificial.

The use/tool model doesn’t quite work when the tool is conversational and able to manipulate the final outcome of the user. With algorithmic intelligence, large datasets and behavioural design we aren’t designing tools. We’re creating social beings (perhaps delimited ones but still social).

For those reasons, we need to better identify the meaning of the product within the design process. Otherwise we don’t really understand it or respect it.

We need to write personas for products.

Practical outcomes

There are real benefits in doing this. Here are a few.

  • Laying out the needs and wants of a product helps identify what situations it will be comfortable. Consider how a cloud-device fails when wifi is unavailable. Moments of incapacity and incapability.
  • Describing the character of a device allows you to understand its social character. One of the failings of Google Glass as a public prototype was in how it was only viewed as a piece of engineering – a tool. Without controlling the character of the product, Google lost control and the Glasshole was produced by society. A ghastly mixed social character of human/device who no one likes or trusted.
  • Know your product and explore its position compared to existing narratives. Many VR products are explained in terms of movie tropes and memes. Unhelpfully, this means people try to explain the benefits of the invention in terms of dystopian ideas like The Matrix. If your device persona is easily fitted into a nightmare SciFi plot then, perhaps, you might need to think about that as a problem.
  • Personas for algorithms are particularly useful for understanding the biases that have been embedded by the programming team. If your algorithm is permanently demanding more personal data, mining behaviours and making judgements which are presented as facts then a persona can show its bullying nature. Algorithms are not neutral and, along with physical presence through devices like Amazon Echo, they need to be represented and respected as trusted companions. If the companion is untrustworthy or horribly biased then spot that early.

Product as Stakeholder

Currently Agile and LeanUX are popular ways of thinking about product development planning. Both are limited however by the belief that the product is a thing that designed, tested and deployed.

Iteration is a way of looping back to improve prototypes to incrementally improve the product or service.

This doesn’t quite work tho when the product is not a stable tool but a social character. Each stage, each loop has additional layers of social meaning and character.

Treating the product as a stakeholder (with needs, wants, intents, etc.) accepts that there is no final tool. Everything is iteration but iteration not just of a design but of social character.

Conversational design becomes not a discussion of chatbots but that all products and services are now conversations. There is social meaning and character in both humans and products: we need to accept that and use tools developed for user centered design to understand the complexity of intent centered design

Intent centered design

Just as a final possibility, intent centered design may be a way of thinking about how everyone, and everything, has purposes or wants to have purpose (look at Dolan’s work on Design for Happiness).

User centered design doesn’t respect how people aren’t users in their own minds. Inclusive design oddly has to exclude people without their permission in order to include them.

Intelligence centered design is interesting as it accepts not all intelligence is human. However, it gets easily trapped by biases that some intelligences are “better”.

Intent centered design is about understanding the needs of people and things. What they need to live happily, to act in the way that they expect and hope. Perhaps it’s due to education and culture, perhaps it’s due to design and coding.

Perhaps we need an ethnology of devices.

But that’s a much bigger thing than I can describe.

Just start with Personas for Products and we’ll get there sometime.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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