Wisdom & war stories from the trenches

Barry the Blog Post…

…or, Why Silly Names Make Silly Personas, and 8 Tips to Getting Your Personas Named More Effectively

You’ve seen them before and unfortunately, you’ll see them again. Personas with names like Sarah the Security-Minded, Adam the Artist, Gloomy Gus, or Uzziah the Uppity Unix User. (Wait. You don’t have a persona named Uzziah?)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”
—Romeo & Juliet, Act II scene 2

A quick word about doing this sort of thing. Don’t. On one level, sure, it works. The alliteration helps you remember both the name and the salient characteristic that that persona is meant to embody. Who was Gus? Oh that’s right. The gloomy one.

But the minute you do that, you send a signal that this isn’t a real “person” whose goals need to be accommodated. Instead you’re signaling that it’s just a semantic tool, a category, dissociated from the living, breathing people who have to use the app that you’re trying to wrangle into existence. People think fundamentally differently about tools than they do about people, and when you’re trying to do solid, goal-directed interaction design, you need everyone thinking about people.

So avoid the alliterative names. Those are really market segments anyway.

While we’re on the subject of naming, some other quick tips:

1. Do an internet search for every single persona name you consider.

Do this to make sure there isn’t someone notable with that name that would distract your team or stakeholders. I was teaching a workshop once where a student decided the name of her dentist persona would be Steve Martin. Obviously she didn’t know about this.

That’s Steve Martin. Playing a hilarious dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. Regardless of what the student did with her design, I couldn’t stop thinking of this guy as her user. If your persona name already belongs to someone else well-known (even a fictional character) it will get in the way. Head back to the naming board and try again.

2. Check names with the stakeholders.

Even if a name isn’t widely known, someone on the team may have strong associations with a particular name. (“Hey! My cousin’s name is Louvenia!”) You don’t want that in the way either. For similar reasons we don’t like personas sharing first names with any of the team, stakeholders, or prominent executives at our client’s company. Each is too risky.

3. Find the Golden Mean of genericism.

The golden mean
The perfect persona name is in here somewhere

Names that are too generic, like Bob Jones also trigger the sense that the persona is not a real person. On the other end of this spectrum, names like Louvenia Dutton-Bünker are plausible, but so particular that they call attention to themselves. Choose names that are closer to Bob than Louvenia. Caleb Patton, for instance, might make a good persona name.

4. Avoid even realistic alliterative names.

There are Lucy Lius and Amy Adamses in the world, but because the alliteration is notable and particular, these names for personas can have the same effect as Lucky Lucy or Amy the Articulate.

5. Be clear when a persona is provisional

When you’re forced by circumstances and/or budget to create provisional personas (personas created without the benefit of research), distinguish them. Give provisional personas only a first name. Duke, for instance, or Glenn. Then at a glance stakeholders can remember that even though the provisional persona is better than nothing, it should still be backed up by research at some point. (We also tend to show these personas as hand-drawn sketches rather than photographs to further distinguish them.)

6. Use an online tool for generating names.

One wildly useful one for Western personas is the Random Name Generator, that randomly selects first and last names from those in the USA census. But here’s the cool part: It makes certain, as best as it can, that the names it generates are unique. (Does anyone know of other, similar but non-US resources? Please list them in the comments.)

7. Use an online tool for “carbon-dating” names.

Personas have ages, and it’s useful to check a name you’re considering against the actual times when that name was popular. If you’re persona is named Bessie, she’d better be at least an octogenarian. If she’s named Courtney, she shouldn’t be. The Name Voyager, is a beautifully visualized tool for helping you understand the popularity of a given first name across time. (Again, this is US-centric, so speak up if you know of others.)

8. Make them easy for your stakeholders to pronounce and remember.

More often than not, part of what Cooper is doing when we engage a client is to foster a user-centered, goal-directed culture change in our client’s organizations. One of the most apparent signals that this has happened is when the stakeholders stop using the generic “user” or “customers” or “clients” and instead begin to use the names of the personas. We don’t want to make that difficult just because a persona name was hard to pronounce. This varies for your stakeholder’s linguistic facility and international exposure, but general we shy away from the Siobhans, Aethylswyths, and Xochitls.

There are a few occasions where we need to sensitize stakeholders to their international audiences. In these cases we might make use of a name with diacritical marks, such as Benoît, but it is always with phonemes that they are able to master and use in design conversations.

Naming is a craft-within-a-craft, and yes, it can be a pain sometimes. But you’ve done the exhausting research, churned through the synthesis, and carefully crafted personas that will make your research come to life and act as awesome tools for your design. Don’t throw all that away just because you picked the wrong name.

Join the Conversation