“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
It is also a truth universally acknowledged by designers that unless you try to know or understand your users, you’re doomed to failure (or at least major setback). The whole idea behind user experience design is building products and services that meet the needs of the users, not just the creators. A fact that crossed my mind when watching the 2005 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the millionth time (only slightly exaggerating).
In this classic romantic story set in England’s Regency period, the Bennet daughters find themselves falling in and out of love at the encouragement of their overbearing mother.
Mrs. Bennet, the mother of 5 daughters, is comically obsessed with marrying each girl off — preferably to very wealthy men. Throughout the plot, Mrs. Bennet pushes her daughters onto the many bachelors they cross paths with, with varying success. By the end of the story, 3 out of the 5 of her daughters are married; but not without nearly losing one to public disgrace and inciting plenty of emotional turmoil for the others.
Watching this all play out got me to thinking. If Mrs. Bennet had taken time to understand the men she so tenaciously hunted as future son-in-laws, would she have been able to marry off all of her daughters without so much drama?
As matchmaking then was more about suitable marriages and had less emphasis on love matches, my short answer to this is; yes. If Mrs. Bennet tried to understand the potential suitors a little more, and tried to tailor her actions towards what they wanted, then perhaps the story would have gone a bit smoother.
But how, you may ask, would someone like Mrs. Bennet do such a thing? I cordially introduce you to the topic of user personas.
What are user personas?
To understand why Mrs. Bennet could have benefited from user personas, lets look at exactly what they are.
User personas are fictional representations of the users we as designers are trying to engage with. It helps designers by seeing the users as actual people with real needs, traits, and desires. Much of the time, companies and product creators start to view users as numbers and data points. As Tom and David Kelley wrote in their book Creative Confidence, “When you specifically set out to empathize with your end user, you get your own ego out of the way”. Certainly you need to meet your company goals; but by putting your users first, you make reaching your goals infinitely easier. By visualizing your user base at the beginning of a project, you can get past bias and try to really engage with the needs of users.
How do you make a user persona?
Traditionally during the research phase of a design, designers spend time trying to get a view of users’ lives and personalities; which helps build designs to better serve user needs. Designers are seeking to build a picture of what their user base looks like. With user personas, you do exactly that.
To make personas, you write up a few fictional characters that encompass the “types” or major groups of users you want to engage with.
Designers create templates and documents (like the one above) for these personas. The documents are a constant companion in the design phase and are used to see if a product/service/plan is in fact meeting what users are looking for.
There are a lot of different things you can add to a user persona, depending on what is relevant, to ensure you’re actually hitting the mark. Not all user persona sets need the exact same information included. For example, Mrs. Bennet might need to know the marital status of her users — since she is looking for single men. She might note that a widower is searching for a different kind of spouse than a man who had never been married. But for a company building an application for developers’ work productivity, marital status might not be important.
When making a persona, also note there is no hard and fast rule about what exact facts you need to include, and what you don’t. It might seem like a fine line between relevant information and not; but if you think it is potentially relevant then add it. It’s better to have a more robust persona than not. Remember these are living and changing documents. They don’t have to be set in stone once you move to the next phase of a design. It will take user testing to ensure your personas and products are truly hitting the mark (New article idea: Sense and Testability?).
You want to understand the users and get a full picture, but not get stuck in all the small nuances that each individual will bring to the table. User personas give you a great overall idea of what you need to be doing to reach a majority of your users. You build the user personas around what information is relevant to you making a great product, without going overboard. I highly recommend this article from UX Lady regarding the different elements you can and should add to a user persona.
How could Mrs. Bennet have used user personas?
Mrs. Bennet constantly threw her daughters at any man that came into the picture; without a thought or care as to who she was trying to engage with. As long as they were eligible and in good standing, she would push her daughters onto them in an instant; and in roughly the same fashion each time.
Like product, marketing, and design teams, Mrs. Bennet was trying to pitch a great thing to potential “buyers”. But she was way too focused on what she wanted and not what her buyers were looking for. It doesn’t matter how amazing your products (or in this case daughters) are. If you are ignoring the need of the users, they are likely to ignore you. And in 1800s England, people often married for needs and gains.
Had Mrs. Bennet taken a step back and tried to understand and then appeal to the men she was after based on their needs, P&P would definitely not have been as heart wrenching a love story. However, it certainly would have saved Mrs. Bennet and her “poor nerves” from the constant suffering she so often complained about.
User personas for Mrs. Bennet
To help her out, I’ve created several simple personas that would have been beneficial for Mrs. Bennet during those trying times — when her 5 daughters were finding love and relationships continuously evade them. Here, I created Mrs. Bennet’s personas for single men of means (i.e. wealth, status, or position) in 1800s England.