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How a Persona Neutralizes the Unstoppable Force and the Immovable Object

Posted December 2, 2012

The room is tense. After an hour of arguing back and forth, the people involved are at a standstill. The discussion around a feature or decision has devolved into a battle of wit between two equally powerful forces: The Subject-Matter-Expert with an opinion vs. A different Subject-Matter-Expert with an opinion! That’s right folks – the unstoppable force meets the immovable object:

See, Captain Marvel and Superman had equivalent powers. It wasn’t possible for one to beat the other. Every move had a counter. Each side knew the others weakness. Logic, reason, clever traps, nothing works. The problem is that each side of the fight is right, from the right perspective. It was a battle of opinions being fought like it was a battle of facts.

When Superman was forced to answer a riddle to save Lois Lane from the mythical Sphinx, he was posed with the question “what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?” Superman answered “They call a truce.” The Sphinx was satisfied with this answers and let Lois go.

What does this have to do with personas?

Personas have become a mainstream part of product or feature design. We know they work. There are countless guides and books on how to create and use them. I want to focus just on one aspect of this topic. And that is how you bring the persona in to short circuit the battle between.

What the persona can do, like Superman solving the riddle, is focus all the stakeholders and contributors during times of stagnation or an impasse. It is very easy for all of us to get caught up in personal confirmation bias. People who are in a heated discussion might have good intentions with their opinion or solution, but they aren’t including the perspective of the persona. We can get stuck on certain solutions that we continue to refine and iterate on which aren’t actually solving the original persona problem.

This is a trap that any meeting can fall into. In fact, you can even view it as an essential part of the process. It means that people care about what is going on, and are doing their best to come up with a solution. When you’re at this impasse though, you may have got there through this process:
We have problem X, and we’ve proposed solution Y. Let’s iterate now and argue about the various details of solution Y.

It’s an easy place to get. Typically solution Y is a though out, reasoned solution. But once equally reasoned solutions enter the discussion, it can quickly become the battle depicted in the picture of Captain Marvel vs. Superman. This is where the persona can fly in with the answer to the riddle, and get the discussion moving in a productive matter.

The Persona to the Rescue

In these battles where you have an unstoppable force and an immovable object (SME stakeholders), all you have to do to try and short-circuit the process is ask:

What problem X are we actually trying to solve for this persona? And what does the persona actually need here?

This question has the ability to bring the discussion to a halt and refocus the people involved. It becomes about making the persona successful in solving problem X, not lobbying for solution Yn+1. Because really, the goal of a good UX and behavior driven process should be about solving the personas problem, and not jumping right to a solution.

There is an interesting effect when you bring the persona into the conversation as a real person. Instead of just referring to them as the “user” or “customer” or “visitor”, the persona has a real name and face. And even if you feel really strongly about your opinion, when you are forced to look from the persona’s view there is a very apparent shift in thinking.

I’ve seen this technique bring stakeholders, some pretty influential, to a quick 180. Sometimes with the startling revelation of “I am not sure this even solves problem X for the persona” or “It turns out problem X doesn’t even have enough research to know if it is actually a problem we need to be solving right now.” And just like that, a truce can be called to focus the discussion back on what matters: making your persona successful.

The Power of the Persona

This is the power that the persona has. The persona takes the discussion and can bring it back into focus. Without the persona there, it’s hard to do. But when you say “What would [Persona] think about this” it gives everyone that shared perspective to approach things from.

Of course, it’s crucial that you’ve developed the persona and got buy-in from everyone involved. When acceptance that the persona is real, and that they matter, people can feel the shift immediately. At that point, you can even rely on user and persona research to back up the question. If it’s not something you have any data on, not even the UX experts can really insist that they “know” an answer without any real data.

I love personas. They can be a way to move things forward and keep people thinking and being open to possibilities. And that is what solves customer problems and makes the customer successful.

If you want to really dive in, I recommend these books by Tamara Adlin. The fist one is a thick monster, and I think the second book was written as a way to make things for accessible for someone just starting. If you only want to get one, I’d get the second.

I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.

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