Bring Your Personas to Life!

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“So you’ve got your persona set all neatly defined and documented. Now what? How can you ensure the persona isn’t ‘just another deliverable?’”

Most user-centered design (UCD) companies create personas (profiles of representative users) to guide their designs. To do UCD, you need to get the “U” in focus right from the start. So you’ve got your persona set all neatly defined and documented. Now what? How can you ensure the persona isn’t “just another deliverable?”

It’s in The Method

You may have heard of ’”method acting,” and how Robert DeNiro spent several months on the streets of Manhattan in a cab to prepare for his role in the movie Taxi Driver. He did this to understand the life of a taxi driver, so for movie-goers, the character felt realistic. He didn’t get advice from the drivers on how to act the role, he simply observed and eventually “became” a taxi driver, enabling him to empathize and see the world from their unique perspective.

Method acting is a technique in which actors try to replicate the emotional conditions under which a character operates, in an effort to create a life-like, realistic performance. “The Method” typically refers to the practice of actors drawing on their own emotions, memories, and experiences to influence their portrayals of characters.

Your persona is your “character sketch.” For software development projects, it may include information about the persona’s demographics, attitude, goals, environment, and how he or she will interact with your software in the context of the day. More advanced personas will also include detailed descriptions of activities or scenarios—these become the scripts for your persona to follow.

I figure the typical persona profile has just enough ingredients for our own version of “The Method.”

“The Method” was popularized by Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio and the Group Theatre in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. It was derived from the Stanislavski System, after Konstantin Stanislavski, who pioneered similar ideas in his quest for “theatrical truth.”

Strasberg’s students included quite a few of America’s most famous actors of the 20th century, including Paul Newman, Al Pacino, and James Dean.

Method acting combines a careful consideration of the psychological motives of the character and some sort of personal identification with and possibly the reproduction of the character’s emotional state in a realistic way. The best way to gain this understanding is to spend time with the people you’ve identified in the user requirement brainstorm. At the very least try to imagine being that person, then being that person in the act of using the software or system you’re designing.

Those trained by Strasberg often tried to experience all sensations as the character would and often used personal experience on stage to identify with the emotional life of the character and portray it.

Stella Adler, an acting coach whose fame was cemented by the success of her students Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro, broke with Strasberg and developed another form of Method acting. Her technique is founded in the idea that one must not use memories from their own past to conjure up emotion, but rather use circumstances from their imagination. She also emphasized, like Sanford Meisner, the all-importance of “action” within the theater. She often preached “we are what we do, not what we say.”

Sound familiar? Those of us working in the user experience field often comment, “it’s what users do, not what they say.”

Putting The Method to practice

The following are some of my techniques for method acting with personas. This can be done with a team of one (you), or a team of many, depending on how many personas you have and how many people are on your project team:

  • Your project team is your troupe of actors.
  • In larger teams, your lead designer becomes the director, and the other project team members are the actors.
  • The primary persona is the character sketch for your lead actor (if you have more than one primary persona you’ll need several leading—or possibly “supporting”—actors). Because I work in small teams of 2-5 people, the director and lead actor role are usually given to the lead designer (the person who’ll call the shots for the design of your software, website, intranet, or device).
  • Assign roles for the secondary personas to other members of your team—those not so involved in the core design process. You can call on these people as you need them to do a “reality check” on your designs.
  • It’s the responsibility of the actors to “become” the personas. They should read the persona profile as a starting point and if possible meet with and observe users represented by the persona to get inside the head of their assigned persona.
  • At your design meetings, the actors consider how decisions will affect their particular character. Questions for the persona can be directed straight to the actor. This process can become fun and enable better teamwork, depending on how enthusiastically your actors embrace The Method.
  • You can expect both good and bad actors, but The Method gives the personas life, rather than keeping them locked away on paper. A bad actor is still better than a hole in your plot. (In software design, a hole in your plot is when the user experience breaks because a personas requirements have been overlooked.)
  • Over time, your actors should get to know their persona profiles so well that acting becomes second nature. That means they become a user advocate—not as an outsider, but an insider.

Method acting is just one technique to better enable user-centered design and is not intended to replace observational usability testing, but it can (and should) work in unison. For each observational user test, your actors will gain even more insights to the real world and can refine their method.

You can’t beat real customers for creating an authentic user experience, but then again, actors do a pretty good job most of the time!


This article borrows some material from Wikipedia, Method acting.


  1. I couldn’t help but think of the old quote from Sir Lawrence Olivier
    “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting? (on the set of ‘Marathon Man’, to Dustin Hoffman, who had announced that he’d gone 3 days without sleep in order to ‘become’ his character”
    But seriously, your plan could lead to some interesting meetings.

  2. This is an interesting article and an interesting concept and I’m all for putting yourself in the customer’s shoes, but I’ve got a feeling that if I suggested method acting for personas to people in our design team, they would squirm uncomfortably and/or look at me as if my head had just exploded. Other design teams may thrive on it, however.

  3. Though this is a good idea, it does not involve multi-cultural or intercultural perspectives for your personas. At best the resulting product may be ineffectual. Or it may simply confound those users from a target culture that you had not represented responsibly. At worst, the technique may bring to life or perpetuate negative elements (i.e. stereotypes) offensive to that culture.

    In addition, if that other culture is not as advantaged as the one represented by your enterprise, you may complicate or endanger relationships to a degree greater than the depth of your site/product/etc.

    Do you have any related activities that include a more global perspective?

  4. I’ve always believed that good acting and good customer relations (a fine line between them indeed) is based more in self awareness, rather than the dissolution of identity. Because at the end of the day, I take the more outward directed actors (Nicholson, Olivier) over the internalized “method” actors (DeNiro). Only after you’ve defined who you are and your boundaries between can you nbecome attuned to those qualities in others. Customers don’t want you to “become” them. They want to see something new and exciting both from products and sales people. The concept is interested, but ultimately, in my humble estimation, flawed…

    In the meantime, check this out.

  5. I do like the concept
    I’m an Industrial Design student (in my final project) and in my spare time I do some improv-acting, this combines both. I thought about it before; combining improv-acting and designing. This is one way.
    The article is intresting, but I think when bringing this in practice more information will become aivalable. When in the design process this is typical helping? I can give some practical tips about how to use it, how to make the ‘big’ step to acting. In my opinion: anyone can act, but please make it a workshop day in the beginning. In that way it will become more easy to start, and it will only work when people get involved and see the fun of it.
    Did you yourself had any improv-lessons?

  6. Here’s my responses to some of the feedback so far:


    Maree Kimberley said “…I’ve got a feeling that if I suggested method acting for personas to people in our design team, they would squirm uncomfortably…”

    Zef replies: Make ’em squirm! But you don’t need to take the method to the extreme – it can be as simple as just making a conscious effort to see the scenarios and taskflows from the users/personas perspective. I’ve especially found this useful when conducting heuristic reviews – the method really adds context to the testing and now all my reviews are created around the user scenarios, as opposed to testing random pages or scenarios, which used to be norm.


    Jamie Owen said “…it does not involve multi-cultural or intercultural perspectives for your personas…”

    Zef replies: Some interesting points you’ve raised Jamie and I’m sure this needs careful consideration. But keep in mind that the method is just one technique to aid the design process and is not a silver bullet! Basically, it’s just about encouraging usability professionals use personas more proactively and this technique works well for my team.

    I did come across some cultural issues when testing the SJS website registration form ( – which is used by both New Zealand and international students. My experience on this project helped clarify my understanding the needs and perspectives of Asian students, which has helped on other projects.


    Modern Man said “…customers don’t want you to “become” them. They want to see something new and exciting both from products and sales people…”

    Zef replies: I agree, and I’m not from the “the user is always right” camp. I simply use the method to help me understand where the users are coming from – which aids the design process. I think observational usability testing is still preferable as a reality check on designs – if you have the time, budget and access to the users!


    Karin Vullings said “…when in the design process this is typical helping? Did you yourself had any improv-lessons..?”

    Zef replies: I find it helps in the early stages of the design, when creating task-flows and paper prototypes. Once the paper prototypes are advanced enough I’ll then usually test the designs on real users. As mentioned above I also use the method for conducting heuristic reviews – the checkpoints/heuristics are standardised – but the scenarios and pathways are ‘acted out’ from the users perspective.

    As for improv-lessons – yes, I did some of these about 10 years ago! I also used to be a performer and amateur actor in my youth.

  7. Hi Zef.
    I like to read about any new approaches to developing good user -focused solutions and this is definitely an interesting one.

    Obviously ‘put yourself in a users shoes’ is a fundamental responsibility for any usability/interaction designer etc etc so it begs the question that apart from having a ‘bit of fun’ how is this any different to what normally should be done aside from having to actually ‘act’ the part as opposed to just think the part?

    As you mentioned ‘You can’t beat real customers for creating an authentic user experience” and because it should be standard practice anyway I can’t really see how this extra step will actually bring any real additional value especially if your team don’t particluar want to be ‘actors’.

    But it is an innovative approach and in some cases I think it’ll work well but in the end it’ll come down to your team member’s personalities more than anything else. I myself would not wish to ‘act’ it out and would prefer to follow the normal utilisation methods of personas instead.
    Boring perhaps but I’m not much of an actor…

  8. Nick Besseling said “…‘put yourself in a users shoes’ is a fundamental responsibility for any usability/interaction designer…”

    Nick – I wholeheartedly agree, but in reality this doesn’t always happen – especially with less experienced designers.

    Personally I have no problem seeing the world through the eyes of the personas/users – but in my experience may other designers/clients/developers quickly put the personas aside and immediately fall back to a self-centric view of the world.

    I’ve seen many a usability review and sat in many meetings where the comments start with “I think this…” as opposed to “The [persona/user] is likely to experience this because of these reasons”.

    So, I use the method as a technique to force a higher level of awareness/conciousness within my team of designers – it’s early days but I’m very happy with the results so far!

  9. Nice approach. but do you really think that making the personas live (by using the design/development team) is no different than having the design team members make persona and profiles on paper.

    You have given an example of a Robert DeNiro (taxi driver) but in that case he understands the role by actually being with the orignial driver (not an actor) and the motive behind that is too study the role. do you think in an average size project you can actually take your complete team to an end user environment and then can ask them to think and behave like the end user while making persona’s and even while using those persona’s ,profiles for a usable interface.

    This approach may work for a big project which can handle that cost of making the team spent some time to feel and then act (to provide authentic data) as per the persona.

    So i think the usability testing with a real set of users is a best approach to the most usable interface. as far as personas are concerned, be it live persona or a paper based thing only .. does not matter that much because both the approaches will document the views of designers and not the actual end user.


  10. This is wonderful stuff, Zef – I’d go so far to say that it’s a classic B&A article.

    Frankly, my colleagues already think I’m barking, even without me asking them to act out being 18-year old girls and retired insurance salesmen – but in for a penny, in for pound, eh?

  11. The danger inherent in this “method” approach is the designers actually believing the stuff they make up in their head to the exclusion of actual observation. I think there’s a natural tendency to have the belief “I’m a user, I know what I want” and this could feed that tendency.

    Would have to keep a very close eye on that.

  12. I see Cooper have just posted a new article on ‘Taking personas too far’ – Kim Goodwin comments “Lately, we’ve been seeing a lot of gold-plated hammers—unnecessarily elaborate communication about personas—and some fundamental misunderstandings about the relationships among research, personas, and scenarios”.

    She recently heard about a Web design agency building “persona living rooms” that are furnished and decorated according to the personas’ tastes and filled with magazines the personas read.

    I guess this is an extreme form of method acting, but I agree with Kim that is taking it far too far!

    In another Cooper article Chris Noessel says “They (personas) have names, faces, believable back stories, and clearly expressed goals. This is enough to get us to think differently, to adopt the intentional stance that puts our focus in the right place: on the person rather than the system or on the design process.”

    I agree with Chris and this is also my intention with method acting – it moves the emphasis away from the designer’s world and into the world of the user.

  13. I think I am entering the discussion a little late.
    I really liked the thought behind the article becos I think it takes us one step ahead in ‘feeling’ the users needs. It is the emotion which takes a backseat when personas are just done on paper and not really felt.

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