Four Kitchens

Inclusive design 101: Rethinking your traditional UX personas

5 Min. ReadDesign and UX

Every successful website or mobile app is built to satisfy user expectations. To ensure those efforts are effective, UX designers establish user personas that empathize with the audience by putting themselves in their shoes.

But what if, for a variety of reasons, those shoes simply don’t fit?

When relying on insights from user personas, too many UX designers take a narrow view of their audience. Cultural bias informs ideas about user needs that may apply from person to person. Fortunately, by encouraging designers to continually evolve their approaches, you can ensure your web experiences and products provide a more equitable experience.

UX design standards must reflect a changing world

With digital experiences ingrained in so many aspects of our lives, your design team can no longer view a website as an isolated experience. Design is deeply rooted in our culture and society. Considering how a digital product fits into the larger picture creates a stronger experience.

By developing an empathetic portrait of their users, any business can ensure its products accommodate an assortment of needs. However, your designers need to incorporate more than accessibility considerations to deliver an inclusive experience.

Your website tells the story of your organization. Ensuring everyone in your site’s audience sees themselves represented in your site is the best way for your designer to tell that story. As a result, your site’s design makes a positive impact on the wider culture.

People look to digital experiences for a sense of community, especially in light of the ongoing pandemic. The events of 2020 that came in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Tayler clearly illustrated the inequalities at work at the systemic level. Digital designers must adapt to address the lack of inclusion in virtual spaces as well.

As reflected in the programming at this year’s Config design conference, UX designers are recognizing their ability to address inequality with their work. By allowing long-held processes to adapt and grow, designers can incorporate perspectives from previously excluded communities and be agents for change — one screen at a time.

More inclusive UX design starts by shifting your personas

Establishing specific user personas is a tried-and-true method to capture the essence of the prospective audience for your digital project. From the earliest wireframes through to development, UX designers apply specific user traits and desires to guide their decisions.

Unfortunately, persona work leaves a lot of room for personal biases and generalizations that exclude many users from design considerations. User personas tend to follow a template. This is especially true within industries that have established, long-standing user types. Consider nonprofits, which depend on digital experiences geared toward partners, donors, and volunteers. Those personas contain an assortment of diverse perspectives and experiences that should also be addressed.

To combat theses inherent biases, UX designers should conduct user research to build accurate personas of the holistic experience for users. One size does not fit all when it comes to shaping your project research plan. One-on-one interviews are an effective tool to gather direct insights from your project’s audience. However, their results can often be influenced by the person asking the questions. Surveys provide another valuable means of information-gathering. Allowing users to answer anonymously or at their own pace helps them feel less like they’re being put on the spot. To guard against potential biases, your team should use a combination of approaches to capture diverse perspectives in whatever way your users feel comfortable.

By seeking a broad collection of voices, designers can also apply empathy-mapping exercises to understand your audience’s needs. Traditional personas typically apply generalizations toward users, such as the brands they have an affinity for or the services they use, which can often lead to stereotyping. Empathy-mapping is designed to break through these kinds of templated generalizations. Taking into consideration thinking styles and seeking to find patterns in behaviors and decisions builds more realistic associations with users by looking beyond their surface-level interests to explore the reasoning behind specific actions they take.

Design priorities become more targeted when based on a realistic view of the whole person rather than a standard template. In the process, UX designers develop a clearer story behind what a user thinks, feels, and does.

How user interviews deliver more targeted design priorities

Looking deeper into the stories behind your users allows your design to provide a more satisfying, equitable user experience. But you only arrive at the best results by setting aside preconceptions about the kinds of content that will resonate with your audience.

For example, Four Kitchens was redesigning admissions pages for a higher ed client. Early in the process, the design included a variety of stories from students, which functioned like mini-bios. The sampling of stories outlined why each student chose to attend the university or its program, which included pictures and stories of students across the page.

At first, it was easy to expect the stories would be of secondary interest to the university’s prospective attendees. Potential students seemed more likely to be concerned with raw information like tuition costs and application deadlines. But as we conducted interviews, our research found would-be students focused on the images and personal stories, which showed an international class with differing backgrounds. The potential applicants informed their decisions by connecting with the stories and seeing themselves and their experience reflected in the student body.

Stories from real users are essential to draw a clear, lasting connection from your product to your user. Your organization’s development partner needs to shed any assumptions and seek out diverse voices to take a fresh look at your project’s needs from the start.

Inclusive design starts in the Discovery stage

The need to inform your design’s approach with multiple perspectives doesn’t stop with gathering information from users. As a project begins, a comprehensive Discovery process should inform your development approach. Insights from your internal team, user interviews, client workshops, and focus groups draw a clearer picture of your needs.

Your project’s design should be an iterative, living process. Throughout the process, your agency partner should look for areas of improvement and share their findings in regular evaluations. Not only does your design improve, but also your agency’s understanding of your users grows that much stronger with every successive collaboration with your business.

However, both sides of an engagement need to remain committed to incorporating diverse perspectives. At Four Kitchens, we lean on clients to decide who on their team needs to be involved in design conversations. Every step of the way, we want to be as inclusive as possible when receiving feedback from your organization. From entry-level positions to the top of an org chart, all perspectives can contribute to a design that satisfies both your users and your business needs.

Of course, your level of engagement with your team is ultimately up to you. Your website, apps, and products should tell the story of your company in a way that reflects the sense of community the digital experience can provide. We believe our work — and the world at large — grows that much better by becoming more inclusive.

If this sounds like how you would like work toward making your project a better experience, let’s talk.