Why characters fail

Original author: Kim Flaherty
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We ’re launching the UX / UI Design course tomorrow , which is a bit exciting because the second not quite programmer course, and even radically different from the same first one (Digital marketing). In general, we are waiting for the start and first feedback from our students, but for now, yet another material we like from our teachers about characters.


Briefly: Characters are a convenient tool for completing UX tasks. Why don't they often help? Find out which pitfalls prevent characters from being useful, and how to avoid them.

Characters are my thing. I am conducting a one-day intensive course on what characters are, how to create them and how to apply them to get great results. I really like to teach this course, as characters are one of the most abstract components in such an analytical discipline as UX. I like to remove the halo of mysticism from this topic, make it specific and solve the typical problems that practitioners face.

Characters are collective images of groups of your target audience, sharing similar views, values ​​and behaviors regarding the product. These are humanized “snapshots” of relevant and meaningful features by which you group your users based on research results. Often they look something like this:

Example character (Source )

Since they are abstract, the characters are misunderstood and misused for many years. Often UX specialists come to my course after a bad experience with characters in search of answers: what went wrong and how to achieve better results next time?

In this article, I will point out the typical pitfalls that make characters fail, and indicate strategies for success in the future.

Characters created but not used

A failed attempt to use characters in the past is often the biggest obstacle to success in the future. Those who once saw how the characters remain on the sidelines without having a significant impact on the project often write them off completely, considering them a stupid waste of time. It will take a lot of effort to convince these skeptics of the value of the characters. But you can succeed by teaching them and demonstrating successful examples of characters (ideally from your own organization).

Characters really work - or rather, they most often work. But people have a wonderful ability to generalize from a single observation, so it is expected that someone could put an end to the characters (or any other UX technique) if his personal attempt was unsuccessful. You can turn to logical thinking, pointing to the failure of generalizations made on the basis of a single experience. However, you need to find what went wrong the last time, and try to avoid this trap in the next project with the characters. The most common problems are discussed in the remainder of this article.

Characters do not work. We created them before, but nobody used them.

No leadership support

It can be difficult to even get started if you cannot get the character initiative from decision makers. Leadership can be skeptical for several reasons. For example, say "we already know everything about users."

But Susan, why should we spend time and money talking with our users and studying them? We already know who our users are, we have been doing this for 25 years!

In truth, yes, they already know a lot about users, so it can be difficult to justify researching the audience with which you have worked for many years. In such situations, it is advantageous to perceive the characters and present them more as a tool for organizing knowledge than as a way to obtain them. Yes, everyone already knows a lot about consumers, but when knowledge and assumptions are not agreed on in a team, a lack of shared vision leads to confusion when making decisions.

The greatest benefit from creating and using characters is a clear display of certain types of users on which everyone can focus and use them to coordinate decisions. Clear user descriptions lead us away from designing "for ourselves" and remove the odds about what the "user" wants.

Characters were created in isolation and imposed on people.

This is a serious obstacle to the widespread adoption of characters and their meaningful use. Characters should not be a personal feat of the UX team, presented to the rest as a work of art. In this case, people will use it as works of art - they will hang it on the wall of the office to occasionally admire.

Where did these characters come from?

In order for employees to use characters, they must believe in them, feel their contribution to their creation and feel like their creators. The most successful characters are created with the involvement of those who will use them. Otherwise, people will not have an understanding of the information embedded in the characters and the thoroughness of their elaboration. Colleagues may think that the UX department simply disappeared somewhere and several weeks, wrote stories, and now asks everyone to play along with their jokes with imaginary people. This is clearly NOT the attitude we want to promote.

To avoid this trap, you must connect the end users of the characters to the process of creating them. Invite staff to study sessions. Send out a daily summary of the activities undertaken to create the characters. Help people see in the early stages how your research reveals consumer segments so that by the time you introduce your characters, colleagues understand their meaning and value.

Communication failure: people do not know what “characters” are and how they are useful

The characters are created, but nothing happened, their discussion has subsided, and now they collect dust somewhere on a common drive. This situation often happens if people do not know how they can effectively use characters for the benefit of the project. Ultimately, it comes down to the failure of communication and training.

- What other characters? And, are you talking about those little things with pictures that someone sent me last year?
“What exactly should we do with them?” How will they help us do our work?

Characters are not leaflets. Only representations of characters are placed on paper. What you really wanted was to take the characters from paper and put them in the minds of your colleagues. You want the characters to be referenced organically and naturally in every discussion and in every decision made. So it’s wrong to just create characters, introduce them to the team and round off

Not everyone knows how they are useful and how to refer to them. It is your task to train your employees, illustrate the effectiveness of the characters and consolidate their use in projects. Set an example: do not let the characters sink into oblivion, continue to bring them to meetings to lay the foundation for the discussion. In the end, character ownership and faith in them gives 90% of their value. Help your colleagues understand the value of the characters, and also give them an idea of ​​how to formally use the characters in the projects.
Prepare a core of like-minded people who will lead the implementation. Conduct an exhibition in the dining room or a series of lunch-and-learn events. Visit teams and introduce characters, tell them where they came from and how to apply them. Tell your colleagues how a representative sample of users is created for testing, scripts are written to inspire design and tasks for usability testing, analytics is segmented based on these characters. If colleagues work on Agile, teach them how to bring characters to their events and discussions as links to user information.

There are fundamental mistakes in your characters

Characters are not a universal tool for all occasions, they should be used with a clearly defined purpose. In order for the characters to be useful, the data presented in the character must reflect the purpose of this character and the segment of the work that he should influence.

Often people create a tool that is not suitable for their needs, or want to (re) use characters created for completely different purposes. It's like trying to push a square cube into a round hole.

Consider two types of characters created for the bank:

  1. Characters for widespread marketing : A set of characters recruited by a large bank marketing team to represent users of a variety of banking products, such as deposits, checking accounts, housing loans. The goals and scope of these characters is very wide. The information collected and embedded in these characters will be very general and useful mainly for the marketing service in order to convey the benefits of the product to potential customers.
  2. Targeted UX characters: A set of characters attracted by a design team that processes the bill payment process for customers with a checkbook. The purpose and focus area of ​​this second group are very clearly defined. The information embedded in the characters will positively influence the design of interaction and experience in using the function of paying bills.

Imagine that we used marketing characters for a bill-paying project. Most likely, the information about them will be neither accurate enough nor useful. And vice versa: characters for a bill-paying project will not be very useful in developing marketing materials to attract new customers.


If you have had bad experiences with characters in your organization, this may be due to one of the typical pitfalls listed above. Determine where you have gone astray and level the course. If you are going to use the characters for the first time, use this note as a list of what to avoid and solve problems as they arise.
Make an action plan, introduce the characters to management, analyze past failures and propose appropriate solutions. Also convey the value of the characters to the business to arouse interest among superiors. Train your colleagues, mention characters at meetings, and strengthen their position in your projects. Come back and demonstrate the successes you have achieved through the use of clear user images in your work.

If you can avoid these typical traps, the introduction of characters will be successful from the very beginning, you will convince skeptics, and you will never hear people say, “Characters do not work, we tried them before, and no one used them.”
Characters will become your skate.


Thank you for your attention. We are waiting for questions, comments and other things.

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