Personas as a tool in human-centered innovation mapping

From bench to bench

Sitting in his office in central Manhattan, John stared at the black and white photo on his desk and fell into a nostalgic daydream about his 18 years working as a health economist for the World Health Organization throughout Africa and Asia. The photo was taken in rural Zimbabwe of a smiling elderly woman named Ruth sitting on a bench underneath a leafy musasa tree, speaking to a demure young woman seated next to her. The photo itself is unlikely to win a Pulitzer Prize or grace the cover of National Geographic. Rather, John keeps it for what it represents — an innovative programme that bridges the mental health treatment gap in a country with fewer than 8 psychiatrists and 6 psychologists serving a population of roughly 13 million people (WHO Mental Health Atlas, 2011).

John’s days at the WHO were usually filled with a (seemingly) endless procession of meetings with high-ranking officials from various government ministries and multilateral organisations, but on occasion he would have a chance to venture out to some of the most remote areas of the world. It was on these trips — like the one where he met Ruth and learned about the Friendship Bench project — that his faith in the human spirit, its resilience, and the capacity for people to develop ingenious solutions to difficult problems was often reignited.

John had recently accepted a leadership position in the Organization for a Healthier Tomorrow, which meant returning to the US after nearly two decades abroad. Moving back had been a challenge — the bright lights, blaring horns and breakneck speed of the city were an assault on his senses after years of living in relatively remote outposts. Still, John was thankful to be back in a place where he didn’t have to continue lying about personal life. Here, the fact that he was gay didn’t put his life or liberty at risk as it may have done in some of the other countries he had worked in.

He was also optimistic about the job. For the past few years, John had longed to work in a dynamic environment that had both the capacity and vision to foster new ways of improving health, and also recognised that promising ideas could come from any country or any domain. In fact, he thought, some of the best ideas could come from unexpected places, and from people of all backgrounds.

Despite these lofty ambitions, John was finding that identifying promising ideas was like trying to find a needle in a haystack, sometimes cropping up in conferences he’d attend, through TED Talks, or simply through conversations with people in his network. The ideas were often abstract and when he wanted to understand the people or projects engaging with them, he’d find himself drowning in irrelevant Google search results (sometimes on his office PC, but more often on his iPhone when he’d be out somewhere and struck with an idea after having had an interesting conversation). How, he pondered, could he gain a broader view of potentially impactful trends or innovations? How could he get outside of the bubble of people and ideas within his immediate network?

Still lost in thought during his walk home from the office, John paused for a moment, struck by the sight of a despondent looking teenager sitting alone at a park bench while the world blew past him without so much as a glance. He was immediately reminded of Ruth, and wondered whether the Friendship Bench program could also work here. After all, mental illness — like many present-day health issues — is a challenge that transcends cultural and socio-political boundaries. Why can’t the solutions do the same?

Opportunities and challenges in using personas for human-centered innovation mapping

Working with big data can, at times, make one feel disconnected from the people the data were collected from or those who may ultimately use it. We’ve been thinking about ways to ensure that people remain at the forefront of our work, one of which is the development of personas — representations of our target end users that are fictitious but also specific and concrete. John is one of the key end users of the health innovation scanner we’re developing, and the story above is an extension of his attributes and narrative. (As a quick reminder, the health innovation scanner will be an online, interactive, openly accessible database, search and mapping tool.)

Since their introduction in 1999, personas have become a commonly used design tool in product and service design. In 2011, citing a lack of empirical evidence on the use of personas, researchers Miaskiewicz and Kozar carried out a study using a Delphi survey to explore the benefits of personas in user-centered product design amongst people working with them regularly. The top 5 answers of how personas add value to their work were that they:

  • Focus development on users rather than focusing on the opportunities or limitations of the technology
  • Help determine if the right problems are being solved by the tool
  • Help prioritise which audiences and end users to focus on
  • Challenge assumptions about end users
  • Prevent self-referential design (i.e., help us realise how users may differ from ourselves)

The personas have already proven useful in helping us to work through some of these topics, and we anticipate that they will be the basis for future design conversations and, ultimately, decisions. Still, that’s not to say that there aren't some potential drawbacks to this approach and that we haven’t had challenging decisions to grapple with along the way. For example, what's the "right" number of personas (i.e., one that fosters an appropriate balance of design constraints)? Also, should we design the personas for the world we currently live in or for the more equitable one we hope to create? I expand on these in the lessons learned section below.

The development process

While much of our work in Innovation Mapping is oriented toward policymakers in research and innovation, our project to map health innovation presents both an opportunity and challenge to design for a much wider audience. In our initial scoping work, our end users were extremely broadly framed, ranging from policymakers to practitioners, to innovators themselves, making it difficult to prioritise features, data sources, or visualisations that the end user would ultimately engage with.

To bring the personas to life, we drew from a range of sources, including interviews and meetings conducted with core stakeholders early on, literature on the health innovation landscape, and responses to our first blog post about the project.


This is John

The other personas we developed are:

  • Siva, a US-based impact investment advisor
  • Bonnie, UK-based research funding director
  • Marco, an Italy-based research assistant at a startup
  • Edward, a UK-based professor of health policy
  • Anna, a Uganda-based district health manager

Deciding on persona characteristics

Personas can have a varying set of characteristics depending on what you’re designing (e.g. a product, service or tool). Most personas include some core components, such as a photo, key statistics, and a bio. The other categories can be aligned to the product or process you’re trying to develop. We felt the following categories would be most useful to guide our design decisions:

  • Organisational innovativeness establishes a relationship between the persona and the innovation context in which they operate, which may ultimately influence their ability to make use of new information and data.
  • Technology use provides a snapshot of the different technology that people use, as well as the levels of comfort they have with technology overall as this may influence the ease with which they use an interactive online tool.
  • Key questions provide a flavour of the types of questions this persona is trying to address in their work.
  • Sources of data currently used provide a sense of what data are currently used to answer the aforementioned questions.
  • Key requirements list some features that we would expect the persona to want/need when using the Scanner.

Lessons learned

The development of the personas was a more challenging and engaging task than we had originally imagined. Below are two of the main lessons learned to date from this process.

Embracing design constraints

What’s the right number of personas to create? Having too many may dilute the design constraints that make them useful in the first instance, but having too few could result in an overly restrictive end product. Narrowing the field of personas to 6 (which invariably adds constraints) at first conjured up feelings of anxiety around whether the right features or attributes were being incorporated. Soon after, however, this anxiety gave way to a sense of satisfaction around adding form to a potentially unlimited number of hitherto vague and anonymous figures. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. In the words of leading design firm IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown in his book Change by Design “without constraints, design cannot happen”, and balancing between overly vague and overly restrictive constraints “can be the difference between a team on fire with breakthrough ideas and one that delivers a tired rework of existing ones”.

Actively engaging with questions around equity

Another finding that emerged from this process was that it provided a direct avenue through which to engage with some important questions around equity. For example, is it preferable to design personas for the world we currently live in (for instance, where many leadership positions across a range of sectors and industries are held by older, white, highly educated men), or for the more equitable world we aspire to create? In having made John — who fits the archetype of the world we currently live in but is dedicated to empowering others — the central persona, we are trying to balance the tensions of realism and aspirations. I’d welcome your constructive feedback as to whether you think this is the right decision or not.

Another question we’ve been discussing is how inclusive and accessible the Scanner itself will ultimately be. That is, will it be designed for people who have physical disabilities? Or how about people who are living in resource constrained environments, who may be connected to low bandwidth internet?

We don’t yet have answers to all of these questions, but they will help us frame the important conversations and potential trade-offs that they entail.

The development of the personas also provided a unique avenue to through which to engage with the project’s original aim of shedding light on health innovations that, among others, promote health equity. While we see no conceptual path that would allow us to build a platform that provides the end user with only equity-promoting health innovations as this would be impossible to know a priori, the selection of personas who are themselves working toward developing or funding solutions that promote equitable health outcomes provides a helpful framing from which to build.

What's next?

While the personas provide a tractable set of user features and use cases that will help guide our design decisions, it is but one tool that helps us retain a human dimension to the work we’re doing. Moving forward, we are also planning to experiment with new ways of engaging external audiences who may ultimately be end users of the Scanner. If you were in touch with me after the original blog post about the Scanner, watch your inbox for more information. If you’d like to hear more about what we’re planning, please get in touch.

Big thank you

A big thank you to all who participated in an interview, email exchange or meeting that inspired the personas. I would also like to thank those who provided constructive feedback and engaged in the development of the personas, in particular Luca Bonavita and Juan Mateos-Garcia.

Are we missing anything? What has been your experience using personas? If you have questions or comments, please get in touch at [email protected]


Chantale Tippett

Chantale Tippett

Chantale Tippett

Engagement and Inclusive Impact Lead, Data Analytics Practice

Chantale is Senior Lead of Engagement and Inclusive Impact in Nesta’s Data Analytics Practice.

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