Why Personas Fail Libre Culture

October 24th, 2010 from The Driblet of an Aphorism

Three Chefs. Three Personas.

Imagine being on a team of three people and attempting to bake a cake.

Where would you start?

If we included each of the three chef's favorite ingredient, would the cake suddenly taste wonderful for the three of them?

What if we instead attempted to bake a cake that was unoffensive to each of the three? What if there were unique allergies to each of them? What happens if we grow our baking team to twenty chefs?

What would the cake be composed of? Would it, even in that limited audience of only three chefs, be satisfying?

What is a Persona?

Personas are fictional archetypes used within a design process. It is an archetype that proponents of personas suggest put a human vantage point on a particular design. Personas are sometimes equated with the more nebulous "Use Case" in Libre culture.

Why are Personas Likely a Failure for Libre Culture?

Libre culture holds notions of sharing, collaboration, and community with high regard. A cursory examination might suggest that personas and use cases are a useful device to leverage in Libre culture as they appear to intersect with such ideals. How then, can personas be a negative concept in our culture?

There appears to be two unique twists on personas and use cases that degrade the design process.

First, personas and use cases tend to be retroactively fitted to an existing design. Roughly, the design is presented and use cases or personas are used to justify a particular design direction. One of our chefs may add ginger to the cake and after it is baked, justify the ingredient's inclusion by referencing traditional recipes.

Second, personas and use cases never restrict a vision, but rather serve to extend it. An extension may well be justified for a given persona. The issue is that when multiple use cases or personas are presented, are the justifications working to counter one another?

Chef A may suggest a persona recommending ginger, chef B may suggest mayonnaise, and chef C may offer up ketchup. Mixing the three together yields a recipe that is uniquely different than the original singular intentions of each individual chef.

While personas and use cases may justify the positive impact of a design choice they may equally fail to address the negative impact of the various design decisions on the overall design.

Personas and Pitfalls?

Personas are fictional archetypes. As an archetype, a persona may well help to dissolve the worthless and crippling dichotomies of User / Developer or Power User / Newbie, but they bring their own set of pitfalls.

When does an archetype become a stereotype? What are the creator's internal belief structures and world views hidden away beneath the facade of the persona?

Does a persona actively define an audience segement or does it make assumptions?
Does a persona bring with it an ethnocentric bias?
Does a persona use research to determine audience needs or guesswork?

Are we baking a wedding cake for someone living somewhere in Canada or a rounded bread Korovai for someone of Ukraine descent?

The Killer (Libre) App_s_

With more unique audience-centric design patterns, Libre design and Free Software stand to truly harness the hidden horsepower of the culture. The diverse nature of Libre culture allows us to leverage knowledge and understanding in ways that would cost traditional companies millions of dollars.

We, as a culture, have access to a radically diverse set of people through the distributed nature of Free Software. We have the ability to interact with and touch many different geological regions with an ethnographic uniqueness and sensitivity unseen before.

It is up to us to embrace this diversity and begin to design the next generation of desired software that is sensitive to the particular needs of individuals, industries, and the distinct cultures in which they exist.

There isn't just one cake out there. There are many. The ingredients are waiting.

Thank you for reading...