Personas in a cultural world

Research points to, that cultural cultural different readers fill the narrative gaps that occur in every text differently. Having this in mind, it becomes interesting to see how different readers interpret a persona description, as differences in interpretation might have impact on cross-cultural projects. 

In the following I will report from two studies of how people from different cultures perceive a persona description. The first study is reported here at pp. 43-46 and involved six participants from India, China and Denmark, most were young and students. This study was followed by a second study with eight participants from Japan, Brazil, France, Holland, Russia, New Zealand, Germany and USA. All were familiar with the persona method and all were usability professionals.

The persona portrayed a person working with marketing. The description was written in such a way that there were no cues in the text of age, gender and culture.
In both studies the participants were asked to: 1) read a persona description. 2) find a photo on the internet that resembled the persona. 3) write a short comment on why they had chosen this particular photo. 4) mail both photo and comment to me.

The two studies showed interesting differences.

The two photos show suggestions for the persona from the first and second study, respectively.Strategies for finding photosIn the accounts for the choice of photo there seems to be two strategies at play; either interpreting or looking for clues in the description:Interpreting the text and using the interpretation as explanation for the choice of photo ‘I don’t know why but I tend to associate obesity with reluctance to new technology mindset. Don’t ask me why!’(Indian informant 3). ‘Information Technology means he would earn more money than average’ (Chinese informant 1).Finding a specific description in the text that serves as explanation for the choice of photo. ‘She has young children and therefore she could not be old’ (Danish informant 2). ‘he has no time to do much exercise, so he may be a little fat’ (Chinese informant 2).Conclusions from the first studyMost participants picked a photo of a person in a business suit, even the only photo of a female.
Three participants from India and China chose photos of western looking business men, the rest of the participants chose photos of locals.The photos from the male Danish participants show persons with a typical Danish look, the female participant chose a person with a non-Danish expression.All of the Danish participants chose photos of younger persons that chosen by the other participants.There seems to be a shared and stereotypical comprehension of how a business person looks – despite culture.Most chose non local appearance.Conclusions from the second studyThe photos were more mixed in appearanceIn general they portrayed older personsThere was no unambiguous choice of photosFew chose a photo of a business stereotype (except one who has worked with personas)All chose local appearanceAnalysis of both studies showThe participants chose the age of the persona based on their own age.1st experiment: the photos depicted younger persons. Among the participant were several student2nd experiment: the photos depicted older personas. All participants were professionals.The experienced usability professionals had a higher tendency to choose photos of local1st experiment: several chose non-local apperance.2nd experiment: all chose local appearance.The experienced used interpretation of the text as a strategy for finding photos while most of the participants in the first experiment chose to find cues in the text, when they argued for.There seems to be gender stereotypes at play. When men a depicted they are more often in surroundings showing them with their children as the persona is described as one who cares for the family. When women are depicted they are more often in business surroundings.ConclusionThe two studies have several outcomes concerning cross cultural projects:It showed that it is quite easy for the writer to incorporate implicit information. In the first study the writer had given the persona children of a certain age. Together with the age of the persona this, unintended, pointed to a westerner. An Indian reader caught this information immediately as it did not fit with the cultural experience for India.It showed that the readers used their own background when trying to understand the persona description and they used persons in their intimate surroundings in order to relate to the persona description. ’I assume I know the person, because of my previous career and involvement in advertising. I, from the get go, had an idea of how I presumed this person to look, since to me we all looked alike at the agency after a while.. I took inspiration from my former superiors and my general ideas of how people in his position dress and tend to appear physically.’(Danish Informant). ’He has a French look (he looks like my brother in law who has similar position in a company).’ (French Informant). ‘Based on some elements in the text I might be more inclined to make it a male, but then again (being the son of a working mother), there is nothing that will not make it possible in the Netherlands to let this persona be a woman.’ (Dutch informant)When reading a description the readers use two different strategies when depicting the persona; either interpreting or looking for clues in the description. Especially the interpretation strategy and the use of known persons might create unintended results in cross-cultural projects and points to, how crucial it is to get the descriptions verified by locals.AcknowledgementsI want to thank the CultUsab project and UX Alliance and all the participants.

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