Improving Empathy In Your Design Process, Create Characters For Your Personas!

Human-centered designers use empathy-based processes to understand the people they are creating solutions for. Being able to see through another person’s eyes can feel like magic or good luck. And yet the tools to make this a repeatable and reliable process are within our grasps.

This tool is storytelling. When we watch a movie, read a book or listen to a loved one share a highlight of their day we are able to see through that person’s point of view. This power is with us all the time. This is why storytelling is the foundation of my new framework for innovation. It is a new tool to create insights through stronger empathy with a target audience. This is a step by step process of building empathy throughout the double diamond of the design thinking methodology.

This article will focus on understanding the emotional motivators of a persona. The benefit of defining motivation is understanding what a persona’s desires are.

Personas Versus Character

A persona is an abstract representation of many people with similar characteristics. Designers create personas based on research insights to create solutions without having to concentrate on hundreds or thousands of individual people in a target audience.

Character is the thought processes and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. This is a term used by writers, theatre and other creators to get inside the minds of the people they give life to. Characters reveal themselves through thoughts and actions so an audience can get to know them.

“What’s my motivation?” This is a phrase used by actors working with directors to understand how they should interrupt and deliver their lines. They need to understand the core emotions that drive a person in their decision making. It is the foundation for an actor to build insights into the person they are creating and make them feel real.

How does the concept of character apply to design? Human-centered designers engage in interviewing and observing the people they are designing a solution for. They use this process to build a persona which is a snapshot of the common traits of the individuals they have interviewed. A typical persona includes an age range, occupation, traits, pain points, and pleasure points within the confines of the project. The next step is to create an empathy map for this persona. An empathy map focuses what the person is thinking, feeling and doing.

In the thinking or feeling sections of an empathy map, it would contain words or phrases that are typical to that persona.

An actor or actress who needs to build a character goes through a similar process. For example, if they are playing a doctor in a role, they will talk to doctors, learn about what their life is like. They will build up the pain and pleasure points of what it means to be a doctor.

Then they will go a step further. They will look at the script associated with the character. What are the emotions driving the language that the character is using?

Whatever a person does, thinks or says there is always an emotional motivation. And if we don’t understand the emotional landscape behind the words, it is very easy to guess wrong.

Finding A Persona’s Motivation

I recently interviewed Peter Evans, Artistic Director of the Bell Shakespeare theatre company, who said, “When we are learning about people, we make assumptions, and we often get it wrong. The only way around this is to stay curious and continue to examine their words and actions.”

This is the same with a persona. It is important to focus on the primary emotional driver underlying the choices they are making. Focus on the big themes when you are going over the interviews. Themes are words that pack a large emotional punch. These are words like love, loneliness, fear or anxiety.

Let’s flesh this out with an example of how to find the emotional drivers from an interview. As you are reading ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do you feel about what Elon Musk is saying about other people?
  • How do you feel about what Elon Musk is saying about himself?
  • How do you feel about what other people (In this case the interviewer, Kara) is saying about Elon?

Read the excerpt below from an interview between Elon Musk and Kara Swisher from Recode Decode podcast.

Kara: Right, okay, my last question. If you had to redo anything this year, Elon, what would it be?

Elon: It’s fair to say I would probably not have tweeted some of the things I tweeted, that was probably unwise. And probably not gotten into some of the online fights that I got into. I probably shouldn’t have attacked journalists, probably shouldn’t have done that.

Kara: I don’t know why you do it.

Elon: Yes.

Kara: Yeah, do you want to say you’re sorry? You can if you want.

Elon: I’m sorry to some journalists.

Kara: Okay, I’ll give you that, I’ll give you that. Okay, I’ll give you that. Elon, podcast secured.

Elon: Thank you, Kara. It was great to see you.

Kara: It’s been a really fascinating discussion, and I will think about buying an electric car, probably not.

Elon: I mean, why not?

Kara: Make a scooter. Make a scooter and I’ll go for it. They actually are electric, what am I talking about?

Elon: I don’t know, there were some people in the studio who wanted to make a scooter, but I was like, “Uh, no.”

Kara: I love the scooter, no, get on the scooter.

Elon: It lacks dignity.

Kara: No, it doesn’t lack dignity.

Elon: Yes, they do.

Kara: They don’t lack dignity, what are you talking about?

Elon: Have you tried driving one of those things? They —

Kara: Yes, I do it all the time, I look fantastic.

Elon: They do not, you are labouring under an illusion.

Emotional Themes In Interviews

I answered the questions above in the following way after reading this interview –

  • How do you feel about what Elon Musk said about other people?
    • Sarcastic, humorous, haughty or aloof
  • How do you feel about what Elon Musk is saying about himself?
    • Protective, indignant
  • How do you feel about what other people (In this case the interviewer, Kara) is saying to Elon?
    • Exasperated, prodding, surprised

You may not agree with my interpretation, but you would have felt something when you were reading the interview. Write down your emotional response to the words. If you prefer to listen, go to the recording and start listening at 1 hour, 16 minutes 30-second mark.

Creating Character Traits

I would describe him as an intelligent man who is quick-witted, haughty and protective of himself. I would say his core motivations include protecting himself from harm by staying aloof and using humour. Elon is smart and confident, but he will go to lengths to protect himself emotionally.

That was building a character study for Elon. Now how do you apply character traits of an individual to the many represented in the persona?

Think about or go back to a past project. Revisit your interviews and look at the language. What emotional themes or feelings are coming forward in their words.

Write down the recurring emotional themes, the ones that come up over and over are a key character trait of your persona. This would go under the feel section of an empathy map. Now let’s take it one step further. How are their emotions driving them to say or do the things you have observed?

Pay attention, motivation is the real raw material inspiration for feature ideas, new services or products.

Start using motivation as a way to understand and more deeply empathise with your target audience.

Next Steps

Innovation is fundamentally changing our today, to create a whole new tomorrow.

Now that we understand our audience as an emotionally driven character, we can move onto the next step in the framework. It is creating a story around the persona’s character to give their desires context.

Stay tuned for the next installment of storytelling for innovation!