Personas are the most common starting point for creating a strategy or designing a product. Personas are critical to understanding the people we are trying to engage. How these profiles are framed and explored has a significant impact on the success of our efforts.
The most common personas focus on easy-to-see and explicit characteristics – in this example, age, location, traits, goals, and favorite brands. Another common approach to personas is a journey map, which, while more specific, also suffers from a lack of context and assumes a linear, direct, and limited path (an example).
Both of these approaches to creating personas has a foundational flaw; they do not include social context. Social context is everything to human opinions, decisions, and behavior. Study after study has shows that people will do horrible things if it is normalized by their peer group. Because of this flaw, these personas are limited in their utility. It would be easy to build an experience that failed to capture attention.
What People Do - and What They Say They Do
The second issue with personas is that they often use self-reported information (surveys and interviews). Between confirmation biases, perceived ‘correct’ answers, and an authentic desire to do better, people are quite poor at reporting actual behavior.
This 2020 research report published by the NIH looked at the correlation between self-reported vs. observed behavior and found, “Across a series of domains, recent meta-analyses, and large-scale investigations have consistently found that self-report and behavioral measures of the same construct were weakly correlated.”
TLDR: What people say they do and what they do are not the same.
There are methods to improve self-reporting in the way questions are asked, but for those without a Ph.D. in psychology or extensive experience in doing research, analyzing self-reported information should take into account the large margin of error.
Social Context Frames What is Possible
Social norming is intensely powerful. Imagine starting a new job, and everyone eats lunch at their desk even though you are encouraged to go out. It’s unlikely you will do so regularly unless others join you. We like to believe we have free will but read Connected, and you will reevaluate your life choices about friendships 😛.
A compelling persona for a change initiative requires social context – the system of influence and information with which the persona interacts. People are happy to CHANGE WITH others, but no one likes being FORCED TO change – especially when no one around them is changing.
When developing personas for organizations, personas can be defined by the level of skills, expertise, seniority, geography, or other meaningful differentiators. However, the lens of roles is a straightforward way to define personas because those in the same role tend to interact with a similar network of other roles. For example, all nurses interact with peer nurses, patients, supervisors, doctors, hospital administrators, and patients’ families daily. When this network of interactions and influence is considered, it surfaces opportunities to create shared value – opportunities that will give individuals a meaningful reason to change while also generating value for the organization.
Creating this type of persona reveals the following:
- Secondary personas are most influential to a primary persona.
- The highest volume and the most meaningful interactions a persona has.
- Opportunities for an interaction to be eliminated, improved, or redirected.
How USAID Uses Relational Profiles to Increase Impact
This USAID Social Norms Exploration Tool is the first persona development, strategy, and planning methodology I have seen using a relational frame to understand behaviors and the network of influencers that reinforce behaviors. While it targets international development use cases, the approach works with any population or use case. It results in a relational persona that informs strategy in ways that increase the likelihood of success.
Creating Relational Personas
In my work with clients, developing personas is conceptually the same but more agile because the population is typically already known to those creating the personas. In most cases, clients can identify relational networks within their organization. The other difference is that instead of starting with a fixed idea of what changes to foster, I want to find the opportunities with the highest potential for improvement – because that will generate the most value for the organization and be the most motivating to individuals.
It is essential to keep the process agile because behaviors are fluid – unlike systems or infrastructure – and are variable by day, situation, and individual. Attempting to be more precise creates an assumption that precision is possible, which creates unrealistic expectations and the likelihood of later disappointment. A perfect understanding of influence over behavior does not exist. The goal is to impact the frequency of behaviors in a large population over time. On a daily basis, there will be significant variability in frequency.
Relational profiles must only be good enough to identify solid hypotheses to test. Real-world pilots are the quickest and most effective way to discover what works. I use the elements of the Fogg Behavior Model – motivation, ease, and prompts – to help clients design workflow experiments. Running experiments helps pinpoint the amount and kinds of ease, prompts, and rewards that result in behavior shifts.
I use the following process to develop relational personas:
Relational personas are a critical foundation upon which to build a collaborative strategy – one that generates shared value for all stakeholders.
Do you include relationships and interactions in your personas?
What have you learned? Please share in the comments!