Opinion, Intuition, and Empathy Using Personas

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“Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge… is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self kind of understanding.”

– Bill Bullard

Seasoned designers develop their valuable intuition over the years, so telling them to suspend it is somewhat unrealistic. Like most, I struggle with this as I strive to become a more empathetic, yet established, designer, so I’ve set out to examine the proper approach to balance intuition, opinion and empathy.

Are current methods for understanding users truly useful or are they merely an illusion?

One of the foremost techniques in understanding users is the creation of personas, but do personas really give us a glimpse into the user’s mind?

This question has been long debated among user experience designers. As with much of the documentation that can be produced during a project, the creation of personas must be evaluated in terms of the necessity and value it will actually bring for the process.

Personas are often viewed as superficial and therefore do not receive the credit they deserve as an important part of the user centered approach.

So what is the fundamental difference between superficial personas and useful personas and how can we turn the former into the latter?

First – lets define the superficial persona:

Often created too early in the process, this persona attempts at providing insightful information about the user but falls short due to over-reliance on simple demographic data, instead of adding a psychographic dimension to the persona, which would enable us to understand the motivations and attitudes of users.

“Male, mid 40’s, interested in cars and stock market” tells me almost nothing as a designer. It basically describes a huge group of guys, who may have nothing in common with each other on any other level. It’s almost an insult to the analysts among us.

These useless personas are often created to check a box. And most importantly – these useless personas are reliant mostly on opinion.

The timing of creating a persona is important: create a persona too late and you risk catering the persona traits to a product already in development. Create the persona too early and it lacks any relevance to the product’s vision.

The key to a useful persona: Empathy

How can one gain empathy for a fictional person you ask? They cannot. This is the reason that personas must be based on real human beings.

Names can be changed, traits can be merged, but the value of a persona, which is truly useful in the design process, is the fact that it is based on real users.

How can we transition from opinion to empathy?

Completing the necessary research in an effort to create a meaningful persona with a set of real traits, challenges, limitation, needs and wants, is the first step to gaining empathy.

So how do we begin to feel for this user we are describing in a set of facts?

Enter the Empathy Map – the overly simplified worksheet designed to gain empathy for users can actually come in handy as a targeted way to zero in on the emotional aspect of real users.

Going beyond the simple use of a generalized empathy map and customizing it to a specific scenario can open new avenues to think of a specific user in terms of emotion. Empathy maps can even be customized for each individual persona on the same project.

What to do with the “design intuition” that is inevitably developed over the years?

To rid oneself of opinions entirely is an impossible task, even for the most pragmatic and methodical minds. Opinions based on personal bias have no place in UX. However – opinions based on experience do.

No amount of documentation or empathy can recreate years’ worth of experience in seeing ideas transform and perform, leading to valuable design intuition.

A seasoned UX designer should strive to steer the process based on opinion and intuition, vs. imposing opinion as the solution.

How to apply these ideas to personas?

As in the case of creating personas, using empathy as the underlying tone for the UX process can make the difference between insightful outcomes and useless documentation.

When personas are done right they are an invaluable piece of the puzzle, providing otherwise unavailable insight to the user centered design process, and keeping teams in check.

The benefit of using emotional personas is that it can enhance the empathy among team members toward users and thus limit the reliance on opinion when design decisions are made.



  1. The right timing for creating the persona must be carefully planned
    • Too early – the persona can become irrelevant to the project’s vision
    • Too late – the persona can begin to cater to the projects’ already existing design ideas
  2. Research must be done to define traits, goals, and frustrations of real users.
    • This research can include any of the research methods available to the team such as interviews and surveys, contextual inquiry being the most useful of the methods for this purpose.
  3. Use an empathy map to transform factual persona findings into an analysis based on emotion.
    • The generic empathy map can be customized for each persona to reach a much more meaningful layer of emotional context.
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