Go to UPA home page The U P A voice

April 2008 Contents

UPA Job Bank

UPA 2008


Personas and Diversity

Yun Zhou and Cliff Anderson

Yun Zhou and Cliff Anderson are usability engineers at Wachovia, the third largest bank in the US. Yun is keen on ethnographic research including persona development, and is an active volunteer for diversity work in her division. Cliff has been doing usability work for 20 years at Wachovia, and is a regular contributor to UPA Voice.

As a company recognized by a number of publications and organizations for its ongoing commitment to a diverse workforce, Wachovia promotes diversity as a business imperative critical to the company's success. On Wachovia's web properties, the company tries to appeal to diverse segments through images of people of different races, ethnicities, and ages, reflecting the company's customer base. However, a recent usability test revealed that working off such demographics alone is not enough to translate diversity, and that building personas is the key to creating, not just representation, but relevancy.


The usability test was about an e-magazine launched by Wachovia Securities in December 2007 targeting women's retirement planning. It features personal stories told by six women customers of various ages and races. These stories describe how they overcame challenges in their lives and were still able to steer towards their retirement with confidence. The goal was to inspire women to plan and take actions early.

This idea was based on demographic research that shows women communicate through stories and naturally reach out to communities of other women for support. The business hoped that the diverse representation of characters would allow the e-magazine to appeal to a wide range of women.

The Usability Test

After the e-magazine was launched, users were brought in for one-on-one usability testing. These users were screened on demographic criteria defining the target market women representing different age ranges, race/ethnicity, household roles, Internet experience, and so on. One of the key goals was to see if the user was able to relate to a story, and if that would inspire her to take action.

The landing page of the e-magazine consists of face shots of six women. Clicking on one of the faces starts a video where the women relates her story.

faces of three women of different ethnicities named Kristin, Sabrina, and Tammy

When first encountering this page, the users had immediate positive reactions to the diversity of women. They commented positively on the wide range of ages and different race and ethnicities.

Most users then clicked on characters they thought looked like them. Unfortunately, they soon found that they could not relate to their picks. After a few tries, the majority lost interest and patience. The characters might have looked like them, but the stories weren't relevant. What had gone wrong?

Personas Versus Demographics

During the test, the usability engineer quickly saw personas emerging from the users in the lab regardless of their ages or race and felt that this might be the key to solving the mystery.

For example, one of the personas was identified as "Heather Homemaker." For Heather, her demographics didn't matter so much as her view of herself and her role in her family. The typical Heather is a stay-at-home mom who does not make plans individually, thinks of herself more as a wife and mother than as a "woman," and does not readily identify with people and situations that take her away from her family focus. She can even find offensive the whole idea of being singled out and targeted as a woman. Here are a few quotes from real Heathers:

  • "I'm married. I don't think of it just as a woman... I think of it as a family, as a couple. Women's issues are great for me, but I'm not sitting here championing women's causes with my retirement."
  • "I have another person to consider in my decisions."
  • "I respect my husband and his opinion means a lot to me."

During the test, our Heather was quickly thrown off by the way most stories in the e-magazine started. Though dramatic and engaging, these lead-ins were simply not relevant to her:

  • "Seventeen is actually when I had my daughter, senior year in high school."
  • "The first time I got married I was 20 years old."
  • "I actually started my career as a pediatric nurse."
  • "I lost my eyesight in 1987."
  • "My mother, she had brain surgery seven years ago."

As one of our Heathers noted, "I'd share it if I have a single friend or one who's divorced, who is floundering around and needs help, but I don't have friends like that; most of my friends are like me, married and making joint decisions."

Other personas included Gail Guardian, Terry Takecharge, and Olivia On-the-Fence, each with their own goals, attitudes, and behaviors.

Do It Right

In this test, building out personas like Heather quickly revealed the gap between the characters in the e-magazine and the real users. It also revealed how this gap could have been prevented had personas been developed upfront. Finally, it also demonstrated that demographics alone were simply not enough.

Contrasted with the demographic approach that focuses on graphically representing age, race, and ethnicities, the persona-based approach speaks directly to the life situations and personalities of real users. In this respect, it is "color-blind." Users are free to identify with whatever persona meets their own goals, attitudes, and behaviors regardless of what they may look like.

Thus, simply showing women of different age and color represented these women, but it did not speak to them. This is the difference between representation and relevancy.

Next Steps

Though we have not and may not have a chance to redesign the e-magazine to include real personas, we are creating personas on other, higher-level projects for the same team. Thus, we feel we have convinced our business partners, all with very strong marketing backgrounds, of the importance of personas, especially where they may have looked to demographics before. We also feel we have made progress in educating them (and ourselves) on diversity, even when that means addressing the issue more subtly or (on the surface, at least) not at all.


Usability Professionals' Association
promoting usability concepts and techniques worldwide
Phone + 1.630.980.4997         office@upassoc.org

Contact the Voice