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Illustration by Dougal MacPherson

Crafting a Design Persona

Personality is the mysterious force that attracts us to certain people and repels us from others.
Aarron Walter, Designing for Emotion

Every product has a personality—whether it was deliberately designed to or not. Reddit is quirky, hyperactive, and sometimes sarcastic. Amazon is like a salesperson with an eidetic memory and amazing talent for statistics. And One Kings Lane evokes a sophisticated, well-dressed interior designer with a carefully curated library of style collages.

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But sometimes products have unpredictable, temperamental, or multiple personalities.

At Weather Underground, where I worked until this May, we realized our website was suffering from personality problems while taking an inventory of all our products and pages before undergoing a design overhaul last year. For example, we used far too many exclamation marks when inviting users to join and contribute to our community (“Welcome! Join the Conversation! Start a Weather Blog!”). And we gave users very little indication when there was an error, much less an apology for it. (Our 404 page said simply, “An error has occurred.”) Overall, Weather Underground came across as unpredictable, awkward, and in need of a lesson on social graces.

Weather Underground was the first weather website on the internet, so we wanted our new design to stay true to this history and even strengthen the “weather nerd” aspect of our personality. Yet we also wanted to modernize our visual design and make WU more enticing, welcoming, and friendly. In this moment of designerly tension, we realized Weather Underground’s product personality needed definition, and the best course of action was to articulate a design persona.

Unlike a user persona, which characterizes your users’ goals, motivations, and desires, a design persona characterizes how your product should communicate and ultimately build rapport with your users. Both are articulated in terms of a fictional character, but they are used to solve different design problems. A user persona helps you understand your users’ existing relationship to your product, whereas a design persona helps you understand how your product can build a relationship with your users.

In this article, I’ll show you how we came to think of our product as less of an “it” and more of a “someone” with an engaging, yet consistent, voice. I’ll also show how our design persona has become a continual source of product ideas.

The persona party

One of the most difficult aspects of creating a design persona (and arguably the most important) is to think of your product less like a collection of algorithms and more like a person. To achieve the right mindset, I asked our designers to imagine a fictitious “persona party” attended by all of our user personas, our key content creators, and, of course, our design persona. Here is the prompt I provided:

Imagine that you are WU, the essence of Weather Underground, and you’re at a party. You see [one of our meteorologists] surrounded by a small audience of enthusiasts nodding sagely as he discusses the storm system moving toward Florida. A group of Personal Weather Station owners are hanging out together discussing the record extremes they’ve recorded. In one corner there is [our comedic videographer] drinking something out of a mason jar and cracking jokes about winter storm “Janus.” There is also a gaggle of Wunder Photographers eating all the cheese dip while they ogle and praise each others’ photos. These are your friends and they are all hanging out at YOUR party…

I told the designers that if they found it difficult to imagine Weather Underground as a person, they could imagine how someone similar, like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye, would act, and then ask whether WU would act the same or different.

We then used scenarios to brainstorm our design persona’s potential reactions. For example: “Someone wanders up to you and asks, ‘Do you think I’ll need an umbrella today?’ How do you respond?”

  • Yes. It looks like you’ll need an umbrella today, because there is a 40 percent chance of rain after 3 o’clock.
  • Don’t say a word, just point at a graph.
  • It’s going to be sunny and warm outside today, so break out those jogging shoes! (This weather update brought to you by Nike.)
  • You’ll need a bigger umbrella than the one in your cocktail! (Haha!)
  • Get out your phone, we’ve got a great app for that!
  •  

For each reaction, we debated how desirable it was and how true it was to our persona. For example, we realized that WU frequently displays graphs and tables of rich weather data, similar to the example response of “Don’t say a word, just point at a graph.” We decided that it would be much more approachable, friendly, and desirable to provide concise explanations of weather forecasts in addition to the detailed graphs and tables. However, several designers were quick to point out that WU shouldn’t be too friendly—for example, it would be off-putting and distracting to tell a joke when users are looking for the forecast.

After going through a number of similar activities and debates, we noticed themes in WU’s personality that shaped our subsequent discussions. We decide that WU should:

  • Answer questions directly, but always back it up with rich data.
  • Speak in a colloquial and friendly tone, but never oversimplify explanations.
  • Occasionally use humor in a conversation, but never in discussing current or serious weather.

These observations guided our definition of WU’s brand traits. Ultimately, we decided that WU is:

  • an advocate, but not an evangelist
  • intelligent, but not condescending
  • technical, but not unapproachable
  • playful, but not distracting

We articulated our brand traits in a “this-not-that” format, similar to how Kate Kiefer Lee and Aarron Walter described their brand traits at MailChimp, because it allowed us to qualify them against brand enemies.

These traits now act as design constraints for all projects, making consistent designs much easier to develop. They also provide heuristics for design reviews, allowing us to critique designs in terms of concrete, established goals.

Responses in context

While the brand traits highlight some of WU’s more admirable qualities, they do not identify WU’s approach to specific scenarios. Or, as Kate Kiefer Lee might put it, articulating our brand traits helped define WU’s voice, but now it was time to figure out WU’s tone.

As the next step in our activity, we decided to create a personality map. Aarron Walter uses this tool in Designing for Emotion as a way to describe a personality on an x-y axis. On one axis, you have the degree to which the person is submissive or dominant in their interactions. You can think of a dominant person as one who takes charge and presents themselves as an authority, whereas a submissive person would rather follow someone else’s lead. On the other axis, you have the degree to which the person is affiliative or unaffiliative—interested in building a connection, or interested in maintaining distance. Aarron Walter uses the terms “friendly” and “unfriendly” here, but I think “unfriendly” conveys active meanness or abrasiveness, while “unaffiliative” simply conveys emotional or professional distance. For example, your doctor may act friendly toward you, but also make it clear with their behavior and demeanor that it would be inappropriate to ask them out for coffee later.

A four-quadrant personality map, with different areas marked for WU’s personality in different moments.
The WU personality map.
     

When I asked everyone to pick the one place on the personality map that best represented WU, everyone picked distinctly different spots. And for each selection, there was a supporting story and context:

  • WU should be dominant while discussing the weather, because that is WU’s expertise.
  • WU should be submissive when apologizing for a server outage.
  • WU should be affiliative when discussing interesting weather events that have happened in the past, because we want our users to join the conversation.
  • WU should act affiliative and moderately dominant when introducing educational content, because we want to come off as a nerdy, friendly professor.

We realized that people (and design personas) behave differently, and may assume a different identity, depending on who they are talking to and the context of the conversation. For example, your doctor may be dominant and unaffiliative while discussing medical treatments with you, but will become submissive and affiliative while discussing Thanksgiving dinner plans with their grandmother. We are never just one spot on a personality map; our design persona should act differently depending on the context, too.

We decided that rather than picking a single spot on the personality map, we would draw out multiple points and context zones. For example, you can see that during “Severe Weather,” we want WU to sound and act like an authority. However, when we have a system failure and end up in the “Apology Zone,” we want to be conciliatory and apologetic.

Debate the minutia

The personality map was only the beginning of our many debates.

For the next phase, I asked everyone to think of responses WU would give in specific website scenarios, such as welcoming a new user, telling a user their action was successful, and informing the that user an error had occurred. Each team member contributed a possible response, and we discussed how well each matched the brand traits we had defined and what we knew about our persona so far.

These conversations led to a number of debates: should we ever address a user by name? (Verdict: Yes, but sparingly.) When, if ever, is it appropriate to use humor? (Occasionally, but we are always serious about the weather.) When and how should we apologize to users? (Always for technical errors, but not for incorrect forecasts.)

Each debate added to our growing library of response examples and taught us more about the nuances of our personality. And while these debates seemed, at times, tedious and narrow, we were actually working through problems in product consistency that we had previously overlooked. We were learning that to have a consistent product personality, we needed to know how WU should present itself across product, design, content, copy, and branding.

Let your light shine

Now that we had a product personality that we thought would resonate with our user base, we needed to find ways to let that personality shine. For our final design activity, we decided to brainstorm ways to create opportunities.

We started with a simple framework based off of Aarron Walter’s description of design personas in Designing for Emotion. We focused on:

  1. Creating interactions that inspire surprise and delight.
  2. Giving users a sense of anticipation.
  3. Rewarding users for their continued patronage.

We generated no fewer than 35 unique ideas to delight or reward our users, from Easter eggs on Groundhog Day to redesigned 404 pages. One of the simplest, yet most powerful, ideas was enabling our users to thank their local Personal Weather Station owners for their weather data. The implementation details of this functionality are trivial: button click → thank-you message sent. But it has tremendous product engagement potential, because it simultaneously lets users know that their weather data comes from a real human who has generously added their data to the WU community, and thanks those owners for their contributions. The team is currently working on the final details of the PWS thank-you feature and hopes to release it in conjunction with a “PWS Owner Appreciation Day” marketing effort.

Another idea that emerged was WunderPosters: artistic posters depicting interesting and beautiful natural phenomena created by one of our in-house designers. We released WunderPosters during Weather Underground’s twentieth anniversary, coupled with a contest where fans could submit ideas and vote on which weather conditions they would like to see turned into a poster. The project spanned departments (design, engineering, and marketing), and has engaged our users over multiple channels. It also speaks directly to the “weather enthusiast” aspect of our design persona.

Ideas like these confirmed for us that a design persona is not just about keeping your copy and voice consistent—it also provides a source of design inspiration.

Start your personality adjustment

Disjointed product personalities can emerge in the best of websites when small, non-technical details are repeatedly neglected over time. But solving your product’s personality problems is as important as solving the technical ones.

To start your own personality adjustment, gather a small group of people from throughout your company (including marketing, design, engineering, and product management) and take an inventory of existing copy, iconography, and content. Identify the points in which the tone of your product seems overly dramatic, familiar, brusque, formal, or odd. These will be the initial personality trouble points you solve after defining your design persona.

As you go through activities like the ones I’ve outlined throughout this article, try using this worksheet I created to get everyone thinking about your design persona individually before discussing it as a group.

Photo of a poster explaining Weather Underground's brand traits for internal staff.
WU Brand Traits poster, hung on the back of a bathroom stall.

Finally, make sure you record and summarize the insights, decisions, and examples you generate. At Weather Underground, we created a WU cartoon figure to represent our design persona and featured him with our other mascots on a series of posters. We then hung those posters in places where our coworkers were sure to see them—such as the back of bathroom stalls.

Crafting a design persona is an intense exercise that requires the the time and involvement of team members throughout your company. While the work may seem daunting, it is well worth it. By investing in your product’s design persona, you are investing in future advocates of your product—and creating a source of design inspiration for your team.

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