What are user persona spectrums? UX Question #74

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Tanner from Seattle asks: What are user persona spectrums?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Tanner. This is UX Question number 74 and I am Ben Judy.

What are user persona spectrums? This is a great follow up to episode 73 in which I explained what user personas are.

In that episode I pointed out that traditional user personas aren’t very inclusive. They present an archetype of a person’s goals, abilities, needs, and so forth—in a single moment in time, and that’s a rather limited view of a human being.

In reality, human motivations and abilities can change. Take me, for example. I have a certain set of permanent attributes or constraints that affect my ability to use a digital product. For example, I’m nearsighted and I have astigmatism, so I usually wear eye glasses—although even there, permanent isn’t quite the right way to describe this constraint, because my eyesight is definitely getting worse as I get older.

But I can also have temporary constraints. I might have surgery on my arm or wrist, and have limited mobility and motor control for a few weeks, affecting my ability to type or use a mouse. I might get a severely sore throat and laryngitis, so I can’t speak for a few days.

I can also have situational constraints. When I’m driving my car, my abilities to use apps on my phone aren’t the same, and I don’t want to be a distracted driver. When I pull out my laptop to get some work done in a noisy environment, say a restaurant or coffee shop where the barista is running the really loud espresso machine—in that situation, I can’t hear.

But these kinds of temporary and situational disabilities aren’t typically captured in a user persona. So, persona spectrums are an approach that can help us respect the individuality of each user, and even how their individual characteristics and needs might change from moment to moment.

A great resource to learn about and practice with persona spectrums is the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit (link in the description.)

The toolkit says, “We use the Persona Spectrum to understand related mismatches and motivations across a spectrum of permanent, temporary, and situational scenarios. It’s a quick tool to help foster empathy and to show how a solution scales to a broader audience.”

In my experience, persona spectrums are not that widely adopted in the UX industry. So you can probably become the first UX practitioner where you work who incorporates this into your practice. Adopting and teaching this method is a great way to help a UX team become more mature and design more inclusively.

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: How do I practice empathy in UX design?

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