An Eulogy for “Kathy” – The First Persona

My column last week on the death of the persona seemed to find a generally agreeable audience. But prior to tossing our cardboard cutouts of “Sally the Soccer Mom” in the trash bin, let’s just take a few minutes to remind ourselves why personas were created in the first place.

Alan Cooper – the father of usability personas – had no particular methodology in mind when he created “Kathy,” his first persona. Kathy was based on a real person that Cooper had talked to during his research for a new project management program. Cooper found himself with a few hours on his hands every day when his early 80’s computer chugged away, compiling the latest version of his program. He would use the time to walk around a golf course close to his office and run through the design in his head. One day, he engaged himself in an imaginary dialogue with “Kathy,” a potential customer who was requesting features based on her needs. Soon, he was deep in his internal discussion with Kathy. His first persona was a way to get away from the computer and cubicle and get into the skin of a customer.

There are a few points here that important to note. “Kathy” was based on input from a real person. The creation of “Kathy” had no particular goal, other than to give Cooper a way to imagine how a customer might use his program. It was a way to make the abstract real, and to imagine that reality through the eyes of another person. At the end we realize that the biggest goal of a persona is just that – to imagine the world through someone else’s eyes.

As we transition from personas to data modeling, it’s essential to keep that aspect alive. We have to learn how to live in someone else’s skin. We have to somehow take on the context of their world and be aware of their beliefs, biases and emotions. Until we do this, the holy grail of the “Market of One” is just more marketing hyperbole.

I think the persona started its long decline towards death when it transitioned from a usability tool to a marketing one. Personas were never intended to be a slide deck or a segmentation tool. They were just supposed to be a little mental trick to allow designers to become more empathetic – to slip out of their own reality and into that of a customer. But when marketers got their hands on personas, they do what marketers tend to do. They added the gloss and gutted the authenticity. At that moment, personas started to die.

So, for all the reasons I stated last week, I think personas should be allowed to slip away into oblivion. But if we do so, we have to find a way to understand the reality of our customers on a one to one basis. We have to find a better way to accomplish what personas were originally intended to do. We have to be more empathetic.

Because humans are humans, and not spreadsheets, I’m not sure we can get all the way there with data alone. Data analysis forces us to put on another set of lenses – ones that analyze – not empathize. Those lenses help us to see the “what” but not the “why.” It’s the view of the world that Alan Cooper would have had if he never left his cubicle to walk around the Old Del Monte golf course, waving his arms and carrying on his internal dialogue with “Kathy.” The way to empathize is to make connections with our customers – in the real world – where they live and play.  It’s using qualitative methods like ethnographic research to gain insights that can then be verified with data. Personas may be dead, but qualitative research is more important than ever.

2 thoughts on “An Eulogy for “Kathy” – The First Persona

  1. I’ve always believed that qualitative research is every bit as important as quantitative.

  2. Well I hope that “Kathy” does not slip away completely.. The difference makers need their own “Kathy” for the betterment of our society. They need someone who asks the right questions for the people, and not just for the betterment of their selves or for the money. That is the negative side of something becoming more commercial, the quality declines as the focus transitions more to the marketability of the product and how it can garner corporations the most money. Hopefully not everybody has lost their “Kathy”.

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