Personas help us understand and empathise with the end user. A persona is a fictional representation of a target user group that helps to bring a human face to the data and insights gathered during research. However, to design genuinely empathic experiences, we need more than just personas to build a deep understanding of the user’s emotional landscape. That’s where character development comes in, and acting skills can expand our connection with the people we are designing for.

As a theatre kid turned storyteller for innovation, I understand the value of character development. Acting taught me how to see the world through other people’s eyes and craft stories that engage and build rapport with an audience. When it comes to building personas, there’s always been a piece missing for me. Personas only scratch the surface of understanding the user’s wants and needs. To truly empathize with the user, we need to create characters that embody the core emotional drivers of the user.

Creating a character involves digging deeper to understand their motivations, fears, and desires. This process requires a deep empathic understanding of a specific core driver of a user. As an actress would ask, “What’s my motivation?” we, designers, should ask the same question about our personas. What is driving their behaviour? What is their core emotional response to a given situation? What do they want to happen from this experience?

Once we understand the user’s core emotional drivers, we can build dialogue and motivational drivers for different situations. Just as an actor would create a character, we can develop a persona with specific desires that become universal. Feel backward? Why would the specifics of a character allow us to see insights across a segment or demographic? Because it is fundamental to human connection. The more we uncover about one person, the more others connect with them. 

I am not a doctor, but when I see a doctor in a movie striving to save someone’s life, I understand their desire. I value life as well. I feel their stress and anxiety as they are working. I understand their emotions as they play out on their face and the actions of their body as they work. I feel pressure as their lines reveal the complexities of the decisions they have to make. The actor can only achieve this if we connect with them through specific dialogue, actions and emotions. And these subtle details allow everyone watching to step into their way of viewing the world and what it is like to be them. While that character has unique attributes, their emotional drivers also apply to other doctors or medical professionals. The personal is the universal.

The ability to imagine what one person would say or do in a situation is the foundation of creating empathic experiences. To help with this process, I developed a tool called the empathy flower. An empathy flower allows us to identify the emotional themes and drivers that emerge throughout the interview and research phase. These common themes become the flower’s petals, and the centre becomes the core emotional driver. This tool helps build a deep understanding of the user’s emotional landscape, essential for building empathic experiences.

Exploring the intersection of personas and character development using acting skills is a powerful tool for designers. By going deeper, we can create characters that embody the core emotional drivers of the user. This understanding allows us to develop empathic experiences that allow us to play with different points of view and gather insights we might not access any other way.

Characters must embody a user’s core emotional drivers. Martin Scorsese says every story is about ‘it’ and ‘getting it’. A character is driven throughout a story to get what they want. And to understand why the character wants what they desire, their emotions and worldview are fleshed out through the character’s behaviours, dialogue and how the other characters interact with them.

Acting skills can be advantageous to gain a deep empathic understanding of the user. Using tools like the empathy flower, we can identify the common emotional themes that drive the user’s behaviour and build personas with a deep empathic understanding of their emotional landscape. This understanding allows us to create empathic experiences that truly resonate with the user, the basis of impactful design.

Whether acting in a play, speaking or running a workshop, these skills are foundational to what I do today. That is why I teach the principles of character analysis and development to extend our ways of seeing, understanding and living in the world.

Join me on May 11 and 12 at Design Outlook for a three-hour workshop on the power of acting for designers. If you have any questions, get in touch! Or purchase your ticket here; sign-ups for the workshops are live on May 1.

Come and play with me!

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