When we think of a persona, we generally think of a stock photo or stick figure, some ratings on different dimensions, a few demographics, a quote, and a paragraph description. A mix of qualities that you have to reference back to and often forget the details of when working on a project.

In Cyd Harrell’s UIE talk “Using Metaphors to Create Better Personas”, she asserts that this is not how it has to be.

The reason we often forget the details of personas without metaphors is that they make us use the slow system of our brain, which is tied to our logic and reason (as described in Daniel Khaneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow). When we use personas with metaphors, however, they allow us to use the fast system, which is tied to our emotions and subconscious.

Metaphor refers to understanding an idea or concept in terms of another idea or concept. Some metaphors we use in common language include:

  • quantity is height (“The stock went up”)
  • time is space (“I did that yesterday”, he said while pointing behind him with his thumb.)
  • emotion is height (“He is feeling down today” “He was in high spirits yesterday”)

After doing a persona study, Cyd advises that we get into the metaphorical mode, and figure out how interaction with your site may relate to different ideas or concepts. An example of a metaphor for a project she was working on with a news site is consumption of news is consumption of food:

  • Some people like to get the best, and choose it themselves (going around to different news sites and looking for the type of news they want). For this they might go to a farmers market.
  • Some people like to get the best, but want it to be as easy as possible (a e-mail news subscription). For this they might get a CSA box subscription.
  • Some people might want it quick and not care about where it comes from (getting news from whichever news site they ended up on). For this, they might go to a fast food restaurant.

Another, somewhat more abstract metaphor that she used on the same news project was an anchor and sail.

  • Anchor: There was a group of users that wanted to converge and figure out the conventional wisdom on a topic from a particular news site, or columnist. They wanted to stay within the realm of what was comfortable to them and not go to a different site or read about a different topic. They wanted the news site to be the anchor that kept them grounded.
  • Sail: There was another group of users that were open to learning about everything they could possibly learn about a topic, and didn’t mind where they got their information from. They wanted a journey in their news-gathering experience, and were open to learning about new topics. They wanted the news site to be the sail that took them somewhere.

Once these metaphors are created, you can use them to help you create clusters from your persona interviews. This can be done by grouping users based on behaviors/needs that correlate to the metaphors. Once this is done, you may either see that each dimension of the metaphor has one persona attached to it, or there may be subgroups within each dimension.

Cyd advises that, like sketching, creating metaphors for personas is a skill that some people innately have, but can also be learned with practice. You can get into the mode of creating metaphors by taking the subjects from your persona research and asking yourself questions like what kind of car or animal they would be based on a few qualities.

In addition to being helpful with making the personas more relatable for yourself, metaphors should help in making the whole team more cohesive, when discussing the personas as long as different parts of the team are involved in creating the metaphors, so they feel like they have some ownership of them.

These are just the basics of Cyd’s talk, and if the topic interests you, I would highly advise watching the 90 minute video. We are looking forward to hearing your thoughts on using metaphors to create personas and to our next opportunity to do so on a future project!