How to create Inclusive Personas

Summary: Inclusive personas extend traditional personas by showing intersections of behavior, identity, and lived experience.

Why inclusive personas?

User personas are used in UX design to explore two fundamental questions: “Who are our users?” and “What do they need?”. These archetypal behavioral profiles reflect user roles, behaviors, pain, and joy. By focusing predominantly on behavior, personas aim to be universally applicable, transcending individual differences to capture broader patterns of use. However, this approach inadvertently sidelines the rich, diverse fabric of user identities and experiences, resulting in products and services that cater to a homogenous user base. Instead, inclusive personas help surface critical cultural data about a persona to bring attention to their identity and lived experience.

Why identity and lived experience matter

Inclusive design acknowledges that products and services are experienced differently by people with varied identities. A Black individual, a person with a disability, or someone at the intersection of these identities will interact with a service distinctly, influenced by societal structures, accessibility barriers, and personal experiences.

For instance, considering a persona that represents Black users with disabilities adds an intersectional lens, getting you closer to realistic pain points. Contrast this to the ‘default’ view of demographics that neatly compartmentalize people into categories. Instead, with Inclusive Design, we acknowledge that people are messy. This starts with inclusive recruiting followed by personas that reflect our intent to include.

Demographics vs Identity: Assume you are recruiting people who are business professionals, on salaries over $75,000 with a college degree. These are demographics. What they hide is the experience of, for example, someone with a disability or from an underrepresented community. A black woman with a cognitive disability like dyslexia, may be in the job, salary and education target categories but experienced multiple barriers and discriminating circumstances to get there. An inclusive persona would help surface this lived experience, regardless of demographics.

Inclusive persona examples

First, consider photography and how cameras (and algorithms) represent skin tones. Historically, cameras in the 60s and 70s didn’t “see” black or brown skin tones. French cinema giant Jean Luc Godard even refused to shoot in Africa because the film overexposed Black actors–rendering them invisible. The default assumption in photography had calibrated film to White skin. To a large degree, this continues. However, in 2021, Google tackled this issue, resulting in the Pixel 6 phone, a phone camera trained to see a broader range of skin tones. They used an Inclusive Design process.

google pixel 6 inclusive photography

An example of an inclusive persona (contrasted to a standard persona) for the photography example might look like this:

inclusive persona vs standard persona showing lived experience and identity markers of a black photographer

Next, let’s consider home buying. When conducting user research to improve the home-buying UX, it would be biased to only study wealthy, experienced home buyers.

Fact: Housing discrimination in the US has disproportionality negatively impacts the Black community.

A user field study that generates home buyer personas might have an associating adjective* persona name like  “First home buyer Betty.”

*See: 5 persona distinctions- how to use personas properly

This standard persona captures all the challenges and frustrations of buying a home for the first time, which is great, but not bias-informed. Instead of assuming that a standard persona captures all exclusion and harm cases, inclusive personas can help us keep inclusion as default. It can also help operationalize your inclusive design efforts. As a result, an inclusive persona might be named “Historically marginalized Hanna” to bring the lived experience of a first-time Black home buyer to the table.

Where to start: How to create Inclusive Personas

First, conduct user research (User Research for Inclusive Design) with marginalized communities and SMEs (subject matter experts), like Google did with Pixel 6. These “experts” are from the communities you need to understand deeply. The goal is to appreciate the historical context of current pain points. This is called a Backwards User Journey. The example below goes back to 1526 for a wide-lens view since that was relevant to events starting in 1930, a few decades after the end of slavery in the United States. 

backwards user journey example

Next, analyze your user data as with any persona development project: Affinity Diagrams (clustering results), issues, opportunities, user flows, gaps, cultural artifacts, and more. 

An inclusive persona reflects your intent to represent. It highlights lived experiences and equity violations that impact a user’s behavior. In your inclusive personas, add these as identity markers. In the American Black housing lived experience, these factors may impact identity markers, motivations, and pain points:

  1. Redlining: Historically, these practices by banks and the federal government denied mortgages to Black people and other minorities. This practice limited where they could buy homes and led to disinvestment in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
  2. Discriminatory Lending Practices: Black homebuyers face higher mortgage interest rates and more stringent loan conditions than white homebuyers. That’s even when accounting for income and credit score differences.
  3. Racial Steering: Real estate agents steer Black homebuyers away from white neighborhoods and toward Black areas, perpetuating segregation.
  4. Devaluation of Black-Owned Homes: Black neighborhoods often see their homes appraised at lower values than similar homes in white neighborhoods, hindering Black homeowners’ ability to build wealth.
  5. Gentrification and Displacement: Property values and taxes rise as Black neighborhoods gentrify. This can force out long-term Black residents who can’t afford these increases.
  6. Limited Access to Quality Rentals: Black renters frequently face discrimination in the housing market. This leads to fewer high-quality rental options and stricter rental application processes.
  7. Predatory Subprime Mortgages: Risky subprime mortgages were given to Black homebuyers disproportionately. This led to higher foreclosure rates during the housing crisis.
  8. Disparities in Homeownership Rates: A notable gap exists in homeownership rates between Black and white families. This is due to ongoing historical and current discrimination.
  9. Segregation and Poor Housing Conditions: Persistent residential segregation leaves Black communities with fewer resources and more environmental hazards, resulting in worse housing conditions.
  10. Affordable Housing Shortages: Black communities often lack affordable housing, leading to higher homelessness and housing instability.
  11. Impact on Wealth Accumulation: These challenges significantly hinder Black families’ ability to accumulate wealth through homeownership, continuing economic disparities.
Beyond addressing pain points to reducing harm potential

Another example: Inclusive personas reveal systemic issues such as racial bias and accessibility gaps. For instance, a banking app for a visually impaired persona would focus on voice navigation and screen reader support. While this can be seen as a pain point, understanding the harm potential is critical: lack of access to job applications or accessible PDFs online can mean missed employment opportunities, perpetuating the 70% unemployment rate among blind folks. 

Build for one- extend to many: Creating products and services using inclusive personas ensures genuine representation and accessibility for everyone, especially those historically underserved by design practices.By recognizing the intersectionality of user experiences, stakeholders can approach solutions that address unseen gaps. Addressing these gaps can have a knock-on effect on all users.

Challenges and Considerations: Incorporating lived experiences and identity markers into personas is not without challenges. It requires a commitment to ongoing research and engagement with the communities represented. Designers must avoid stereotypes and assumptions, engaging in a dialogue with users to understand their unique experiences.

Furthermore, a balance must be struck to ensure that these personas do not become tokenistic or reductive. Their goal is to amplify better decision-making for inclusivity

See: Avoiding tokenism in Inclusive Design

Bottom line: Inclusive Personas challenge us to broaden our perspectives. Integrating behavior with lived experience and identity markers in persona development is crucial for Inclusive Design. It starts with integrating behavior with the nuanced layers of identity and lived experience, focusing on those often marginalized in design narratives, such as the Black community and people with disabilities. This integrative approach considers cultural background, socio-economic status, ability, and behavior patterns. This combination provides a more holistic understanding of users, allowing for the design of inclusively human-centered solutions.

Go deeper: The power of questioning design defaults…

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