I feel is is my duty to warn you that you have been infiltrated. Your product (or service) has an interloper. There, lurking in the shadows behind everyone else. Clothed in darkness, wrapped in silence, there lurks the mysterious shadow persona.

You can’t see them, but you know they are there. Dark figures, moving behind the scenes and manipulating things from out of your line of sight.

They never go so far as to touch your product itself, though. They’re far to clever or important for that. But they manipulate and influence those who do. You’ll never see them, but you will hear talk of their presence. They’ll come for those you do know, stalking them quietly when you’re not around. Putting demands on them, or twisting them to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Or those you do know will be constrained by their whims, unable to act in accordance with their better judgement.

Whilst these quiet, faceless creatures never touch your product themselves, you’ll know them by the marks they leave on those who do. From the stains and the scars.

If you wish to truly understand those you know, seek out the unseen figures who whisper to them from terra ingognita. Get to know their ways, as their impact is often greater than is otherwise apparent.

In Plain English

In User Experience design, the idea of the persona is well understood – well defined examples of those who use a product. But a few years back, I encountered a situation where we needed to design for a user who would never use our product.

At the time I called this a “Hidden Persona“, “Indirect Persona” or “Shadow Persona“.

One of our known personas needed to work with this person to extract relevant information that they could then use to work with our software. That conversation, which happened out-of-sight of our product, was a key interaction for the feature we were designing.

But it was a difficult interaction to nail down. That “Shadow Persona” was somebody we couldn’t ever really know, and we could never interact with them directly through out product.

Indirect Interactions

Historically, we’d always considered the information gleaned from that difficult, formless discussion to be the starting point for the job this feature was designed to achieve. The problem was that nobody knew what information would be useful to glean until after that conversation, and the person embodying the hidden persona would be quite unlikely to know any better.

There would usually be several rounds of back-and-forth before a rudimentary language and understanding could be reached, and meaningful exchanges could occur.

Typically, this left the person embodying the known persona frustrated and the person embodying the hidden persona annoyed. As you might imagine, that didn’t help achieve good results and a steady working relationship.

So we had to think of a new approach.

Start With An Icebreaker

We figured that a good place to start would always be with a gift. Not just a fruit basket, a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates (although those might help too – don’t rule them out!) but an offering that says something about how to go forward. A sign that our known persona cares and is trying to do something useful.

In this case, we treated our shady figure as another persona. A shadow persona, lurking behind the one we can see. They’ll never touch our product, but a smooth interaction with our product depends on them all the same. We learned who they were and how they fitted in.

So we build an offering for them. Something that our known persona could use to introduce themselves and start the ball rolling quickly, without taking much of the shadow persona’s time. In this case, it went through some iterations, but ended up being a printable or email-able report of the few things that were already known prior to the discussion, with spaces and questions included to find out more and feed it back in to the process.

This report also included conversational affordances – things that announced reasons to speak, and reasons why the information was relevant. Catalysts for discussion. Icebreakers. That sort of thing. Things that would let the shadow persona cut to the chase and see value in what was being done. Things that would hint at what information would prove useful and what wouldn’t, and to let them provide that information painlessly.

Make It A Conversation, Not A Monologue

What’s more, the report provided information in a format designed to be added to through notes and comments – ways to capture the conversation quickly, easily and without repetition or clutter. We then provided ways for our known persona to collect this information together and encode it back into the product.

Once that was all included, the early conversations could happen without the frustration and annoyance that had previously made them painful.

Rethink Personas – Learn To See The Invisible

So, if you’re going to take something away from this post, make it this:

Stop making personas just for anyone who uses your product.
Instead, start making them for anyone who impacts the usage of your product – even if they don’t use it themselves.