There's more of a difference between generations than you might think.

When are Ageless, Genderless User Personas Effective?

On the web, everyone is equal.

This is a problem, especially for those of us engaged in the business of writing user personas.

It should be no secret by this point that the how-to of creating user personas is still up in the air.  There is a modicum of agreement that personas should be based around the analytics gathered on the website in question.  How treat data in comparison and contrasts with your target audience, and how to synthesize that comparison into user personas, is still widely up for debate.

So where do we start when it comes to building user personas?

One of the most helpful resources I point newcomers to is usability.gov, which has a list of some great user persona standards. Among other things, they suggest you provide a persona with an age and gender.

This is a tricky bit, however.  There are many who want to treat everyone in all walks of life with equality, including some industry leaders that believe in removing age and gender from personas. The argument they provide is that these facets of a user don’t provide relevant context, and only add biased, unproven assumptions to the equations. Personas, they state, should be based on story archs, and not on aspects of the user that provide useless context to that story.

On a certain level, that makes sense.  We all make assumptions about people of different gender and ages based on our own experiences and the influence of the different people and institutions in our lives.  We’ve probably all heard that women are terrible drivers, or that teenagers don’t care about the world around them.  In general, we’re fighting a battle against the stereotypes we as individuals and as a culture use to label these groups.

This extension of ethnocentrism is the antitheses of what the world wide web is all about– providing the same opportunities to explore, learn, and consume to individuals the world over.

There are others (myself included) that believe the usefulness of a persona is at least two-fold. A persona allows you to synthesize data captured from analytics into usable format, true.  They also allow for designers to design for actual human beings rather than the generalized “user” that is so often discussed around the conference table.

By putting a face and name with a set of requirements, you’re suddenly working to make Susie Shopper’s experience better, not some nameless, faceless, un-relatable “user.”  Your work is more personal. You feel like you’re connecting with and solving the problems of actual customers.

Removing aspects such as age and gender only serve to de-personify the persona, which seems a bit of a contradiction of terms.  So long as we’re aware of our own presuppositions and actively seek to counter them, there’s no problem with keeping age and gender as part of our user personas.

But that’s not the only issue I have with this approach.

But wait! There's more!
But wait! There’s more!

The difficulty we run into here is the age old “ideal vs reality” conundrum.

I absolutely agree that men and women should be treated as equals.  Everyone, regardless of age, should have the same fair treatment when it comes to their web experiences.

However, the fact of the matter is that there is a good deal of difference to how men, women, and different age groups consume user interfaces and experiences.

According to a study conducted by the Worcester Polytechnic Institute,  women notice and use different aspects of a UI than men. Women, for instance, are more prone to notice people and faces, whereas men are more drawn to dynamic color choices. There’s also empirical evidence that things such as font choice may have a large effect on how men and women consume user interfaces.

The study on font consumption in UI dealt specifically with cars, but has far-reaching implications.
The study on font consumption in UI dealt specifically with cars, but has far-reaching implications.

Additionally, the age range of your demographic should affect your UX design, especially if you’re designing for older audiences. There’s a significant amount of research and knowledge behind understanding how older adults interact with the web.  Things like font choice and size, which you might expect has a larger impact for older audiences, actually have negligible effects on usability for older adults, while persistent and consistent navigation have a huge benefit.

While it may be politically correct to have the concept that “women are no different from men,” and that “age doesn’t matter,” the reality of the situation, when it comes to UX at least, is that there’s a distinct difference between the groups.  How this difference is applied will vary depending on you site’s demographics and target audience.

If your site is age and gender agnostic, then by all means, go ahead and strip out this information.  If not, ensure that your user persona, as well as your assumptions about that user, are based on a solid scientific grounding, and not your stereotypical presuppositions.

As UX professionals, it’s our duty to provide everyone an equally effective and awesome experience, tailored to our users’ collective needs and wants.

Afer all, on the web, everyone is equal.

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