A speculation on personas & scenarios

In the wake of our discussion on Representation and Speculation approaches in HCI, I thought I would write a short post to pose a question. Granted that these categories aren’t exclusive, where do techniques such as personas and scenarios lie on this continuum? Personas are a common technique used in user-centered design and indeed do “speculate” on how certain groups or members of particular demographics go about their daily lives (or work contexts). Ultimately, the aim of personas is to help designers empathize with their target group and create a design that appropriately fits in their lives. While personas have a speculative quality, they are staunchly grounded in representation. User research (or sometimes just market research) techniques are used to synthesize accounts of human experience into one (or a small set) of primary and secondary “users” that objectively represent wide–and oftentimes diverse–populations of people. That’s not to say this approach is bad, rather this example simply illustrates it’s rationalist underpinnings.

So where do scenarios lie? The puzzle becomes more complicated for me. Similar to personas, scenario task descriptions emerged early in the development of user-centered design. Essentially, a scenario describes human activities or tasks in a story that creates a space for exploration of contexts, needs, and requirements. Scenarios are intended to capture personalized user perspectives relating to their activities, potentially leading to the development of new requirements.

During task scenario sessions, users reflect on hypothetical circumstances to generate the best assumption of how they might react in the given situation. These reflective descriptions are then synthesized into objectively reproducible design constraints. In contrast, approaches such as experience prototyping directly engage users in simulations, stimulating the physical and sensorial (as well as intellectual) nature of interacting with an artifact, system, or environment. Via simulation, experience prototyping engages participants directly in their own meaning making processes and designers aim to interpret these rich understandings (based on their own designerly ways of knowing) and incorporate them within specific design situations. It’s debatable exactly where experience prototyping lies on the continuum (I vote mostly speculation), however, in light of this example, scenarios fall strongly within representation. …but do they always?

Along with the growing movement toward human-centered design, new techniques and perspectives are being proposed to take into account the broader effects and unintended consequences design may produce on the world’s environments and inhabitants. Specifically, value-scenarios have been proposed as a method to support critical, systemic thinking throughout the design process about the ramifications of  introducing new technological designs into the world. In this case, value-scenarios represent a speculative extension of an approach rooted in representation (i.e. scenario-based design). I think this example is interesting in that it illustrates the boundaries between categories we construct can be quite fluid and mutually inform each other. That’s not to say these categories aren’t good or useful, but rather critical examination of particular practices could lead to future productive synergies.


  1. jeffreybardzell

    I think it is totally appropriate to push back a little bit, especially when a conceptual distinction is introduced. Often, in order to make a distinction comprehensible, one overstates the difference or at least plays down the overlaps.

    That said, and I do agree with the gist of what you have written, I would hasten to add that all speculations are grounded in representation. It is humanly impossible for it to be otherwise. Even the most outrageous fantasy is grounded in some observed reality. The more meaningful question is the relationship between the representational force and the speculative force, and you’ve given some nice examples with which to think through.

    I think scenarios, personas, and even cognitive models are all essentially speculative. They are abstract constructs created by researchers. True, they are not invented out of thin air. But a persona is always already a character, a fiction. That in itself makes it speculative. Then there is the additional claim that this character is representative of a particular, relevant demographic. The basis of that claim is usually empirical and representative, but the extent to which a persona is different from a collection of averages (and it must be, or why would we bother?), it is speculative.

    One way to think about it, and I’m kind of going off the top of my head right now, is the criterion of empirical verifiability. You can empirically verify whether Americans prefer Coke or Pepsi, dogs or cats. But you can’t empirically verify whether a persona prefers Coke or Pepsi, because the persona doesn’t exist!

  2. wodom

    Cognitive Models speculative, but.. they’re grounded in science! 🙂 Actually, I completely agree with your thoughts–I proposed a slightly more surface level perspective on the respective approaches.

    The pressing question remains, can my persona empirically verify that you new look is more like Lucius Malfoy or Flock of Seagulls?

    p.s. your avatar wanted me to ask that question.

  3. seanconnolly


    I know this isn’t a qualia we have spoken about in class, but I think the classification of the tool really relies on the depth with which the researcher manifests his design tools – not in the way in which the tools are named.

    For example, if you were to perform a five minute contextual inquiry, draw no real insight, and reconstruct your persona and scenario as an exact replication of what you just saw – it’s a representation. Furthermore, even if you were to take many lengthy contextual inquiries – and cut and paste some of the discrete data into a simply summed persona and scenerio – it’s a bit more of a speculation now.. but it’s still shallow.

    The technique, in my opinion, doesn’t matter (except in that we should know the strengths and limitations of the frameworks in order to make informed choices).

    What you’re looking for is a rich appreciation of using audience in different facets and contexts. If there is a one-to-one map from data to technique, it’s a representation. If there is applied insight from research to technique, that’s speculation.

  4. Nick Trendov

    Personas may be probablistic but not speculative.

    Consider that Personas are defined by their behaviours or rather a combination of behaviours which a Persona may exhibit or not according to their need.

    Scenarios on the other hand are simply a grouping of stories. Traditionaly in scenario analysis the stories in one scenario are different in another and described as two different ‘worlds’. This view of scenarios is much richer than that of accountants who confuse sensitivity analysis with scenarios and that of programmers/designers who confuse workflow interactions with scenarios.

    The art in scenarios is understanding when reality for the scenario storyteller shifts from one scenario to another triggering actions which have been pre-determined. From a commercial perspective KPIs in one scenario determine if an enterprise meets expectations and the same occurs in scenario2. Then there are KPI’s that cross scenarios which determine if and how fast the reality of the enterprise is shifting from one to the other.

    Speculation has nothing to do with scenario analysis or personas.
    Probability or possibility tends to be the guide in my experience which I share at http://www.scenario2.com



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