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Broke And Busy: An Alternative to Traditional Persona Modeling Using Keirsey Temperament Theory

By Kelsey Loftin

In an ideal world, after finishing the user research and requirements gathering for each new project, I could put in an order for a half dozen mini-users. I would keep a desk drawer with matchbox beds for Jill, Debra, and Harvey, and they would hang around and answer my questions for the duration of the project. Unfortunately, science has not yet blessed us with pocket-size interactive personas. However, I can ask someone on my team to study a persona and become the archetypal user, which gives me unlimited access to Jill, Debra, and Harvey. Choosing one of the personas, this exercise in method acting is a useful way to gain a deeper understanding of Jill’s motivations and what she needs from the product.

In this article, I propose an alternative to persona modeling that deviates from the traditional method of using first-hand, ethnographic research to inform persona creation. Traditional research methods cannot completely remove the barriers of cost, time, and buy-in from decision makers that keep many product development teams from modeling personas based on ethnographic insights. Instead of creating no persona or a persona based on no research at all, I suggest that teams model their personas using a curated set of personality types developed through a long-term ethnographic study of behavioral patterns called Keirsey Temperament TheoryTM. By focusing on an applicable and sound theory to identify a persona’s personality type and underlying motivations, teams can gather results similar to those uncovered by traditional methods.

Personas are a staple in the fields of user experience (UX) design and technical communication, and should not be eliminated from the design process due to budget and time constraints. The purpose of a persona is to give writers, designers, and developers a specific end user to consider when building features, interactions, and experiences. By designing for the user archetype Jill represents—with her motivations and patterns of behavior well understood—we can satisfy the larger group of users Jill represents. In his essay “Ad-Hoc Personas and Empathetic Focus,” Don Norman sums up the value of applying personas to the design process:

Personas, by emphasizing the several different kinds of unique individuals who will be using the product, aid the designer in maintaining focus, concentrating on design aspects that the individual Personas need and eliminating from the design things they will find superfluous.

Why let organizational constraints keep you from developing such a powerful tool?

Keirsey vs. Traditional Persona Modeling Methods
Cooper’s Original Persona Modeling Method

Alan Cooper first developed the persona-modeling concept for software design and development teams in the late 1980s and popularized their usage after publishing the technique in The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. In it, he describes the purpose, value, and best practices for creating and using personas.

Cooper’s approach is the traditionally used, ethnographic research-driven method of persona modeling and is meant to guide technical communicators, UX designers, developers, and others toward designing experiences for specific rather than general users. To this end, persona modeling is the process of capturing representative information about typical users and their goals based on ethnographic user data. Cooper advocates for ethnographic techniques because the research framework is based on the assertion that your interview subject’s behaviors are so ingrained that they have become unconscious decisions. Through first-hand user research—specifically interviews and task-based studies—Cooper asks us to observe and record motivations and other patterns of human behavior. Those behavioral patterns and the insights form the basis on which a persona’s personality and narrative are constructed. While your persona’s personality may be fictional, it’s based on a review of experiential research that was collected first-hand. Each identifying trait or goal included in a traditional persona is derived from user research and results in identifying a precise representation of personality.

Modeling Personas Using Keirsey Temperament Theory

The Keirsey Temperament Sorter (KTS-II) is a well-known tool for comprehensive and detailed personality analysis. The 70-question assessment is based on Keirsey Temperament Theory, which postulates that there are four basic categories of human behavior called temperaments, and each is comprised of four distinct roles. Keirsey’s theory was published in his book, Please Understand Me II, which contains in-depth descriptions of the four temperaments and sixteen role types. Figure 1 shows the world’s population as distributed among Keirsey’s four temperaments with Guardians making up almost half the population. Artisans come in second at 30-35% of the population, while Idealists and Rationals form the remaining 10-15% and 5-10% respectively.

Figure 1. Distribution of Keirsey’s Four Temperaments Across World Population

Keirsey identified two aspects of personality: temperament and role type. For our purposes, we will focus on the temperaments rather than the role types to ensure that the application of Keirsey’s theory is based on its shared principles with ethnographic research rather than fluid opinions. For instance, role type describes what people have in mind, or prefer, in the moment, whereas temperament describes what users do through observed, long-term behavior. There is a key difference that helps us distinguish between the two: Temperament is the aspect of personality that stays the same, and role type is known to change over time. Personality and opinion are derived from a person’s current disposition, or role type, whereas motivations can be found in one’s predisposition, or temperament. This places motivation at the foundation of personality, and motivations can be identified by both first-hand ethnographic user research and a study of the four temperaments. Thus, both Keirsey’s temperaments and Cooper’s method express a credible reality for persona modeling.

However, Cooper explores only the idea of collecting first-hand, ethnographic research. Observations and interviews are the elements of ethnography most closely linked to user experience research goals. These methods are generally preferred because large amounts of data can be quickly gathered and it minimizes our dependence on self-reported behavior from users, which is often inaccurate. Still, the main reason Cooper prefers ethnographic research is because it focuses on, as he says in a blog post titled Getting From Research to Personas, “what users do, what frustrates them, and what gives them satisfaction.”

Keirsey Temperament Theory accounts for each of the previously mentioned attributes of ethnography that are beneficial to persona modeling, plus it’s packaged in a ready-to-use, applicable theory. Temperament theory and the KTS-II were designed to expose ethnographic insights by identifying patterns of behavior in individuals and focusing primarily on what users do, revealing what motivates their actions. These motivations uncover answers to the why? behind an individual’s choices and are explained in detail through Keirsey’s temperament descriptions. When searching for those ingrained motivations that lead to a user’s unconscious decisions—in other words, a catalog of ethnographic research—look no further than Keirsey.

Applied Theory: The Keirsey Persona Modeling Method

Certainly, there is no substitute for hands-on investigation, especially interviews and field research. Participating in user research activities provides us with a front row seat to witness users’ aha moments and learn more about the ways real people interact with our products. Often though, we are constrained by budgets, deadlines, or disinterested decision makers that prevent us from conducting this kind of in-depth user research to inform our designs. Take Figure 2 for example: The major differences between the steps in the traditional versus Keirsey methods are the accessibility factors of time, money, and buy-in.

Figure 2. Steps Involved in Traditional vs. Keirsey Persona Modeling Methods

Many of us have experienced these roadblocks to research. According to Cooper, we don’t have any other options. Fortunately, Keirsey offers us an alternative. The Keirsey modeling method can make it much easier to get approval for persona development activities because it eliminates those hurdles, while providing benefits similar to ethnographic research through applied theory.

There are many tools that, alone, cannot provide product development teams with the same value as a persona. Fortunately, tools such as market segmentation and user profiles provide a foundation on which to apply Keirsey Temperament Theory and model personas. First, we must isolate the market segments that would be interested in our product. This market intelligence can shed light on the sales process, including demographics, distribution channels, and purchasing behavior. Typically, this information is used to aid in the participant recruitment process, but our goal is to create user profiles from the market segments, highlighting the types of participants we would have chosen for studies.

Meet Jill Anderson, a Keirsey-constructed Persona

Jill is one of a number of user profiles created from the market segments we have identified, and she will help us design the user experience of our product: An Electronic Health Record (EHR) application for first responders. We already understand the general need to cut down on paperwork and streamline the collection of patients’ medical data in the field, but Jill can tell us how to design the software experience to meet her needs.

The characterization of Jill’s personality as part of the traditional persona modeling process typically involves writing a persona descriptor, or the most prominent feature that differentiates this persona from others used on the same project, and a quote from Jill in reference to collecting patient data. In addition, some combination of her technical skills, goals, point of view, and traits are detailed in relation to the product and how it fits into her daily workflow.

Identifying Jill’s Temperament by Career Choice

Since Jill can’t take the KTS-II, we must apply Keirsey’s theory to reverse-engineer the identification of Jill’s temperament. Once her temperament is discovered, we can achieve a similar level of detail found in personas modeled on the traditional method. Keirsey’s approach to personality analysis includes examining the four temperaments with respect to subjects such as stressors, career choice, relationships, parenting, school, and more, which provide building blocks for in-depth analysis and identifying behavioral patterns outside of a hands-on ethnographic study.

Keirsey draws conclusions about each temperament’s career preferences based on what drives them and how they find satisfaction in life. Many high-level career fields are present for more than one temperament, posing a problem for any analysis that relies on job title only. Fortunately, Keirsey’s theory is focused more on the motivations and predispositions that lead to career choice, providing the insights necessary to accurately identify temperament by career. For example, Jill chose a career in the field of first responders as an EMT-Paramedic, and we can approach her temperament analysis from that angle. Keep in mind that rather than giving us a fixed answer, temperament serves as a guide, providing insight into why she chose her career path.

Start by looking at all possible career paths across the four temperaments and their associated role types. Soon, patterns will emerge, such as Guardians and Artisans both being drawn to careers in the medical and healthcare communities. A deeper look at why Guardians are driven to these careers reveals a deep-seated motivation to serve their community and provide for the welfare of many. A Guardian may join the medical or healthcare community to become a dentist, nurse, or physician. Artisans, on the other hand, are drawn to those fields because they offer action careers, such as pilot, military personnel, police officer, and—you guessed it—paramedic. These subtle differences in career choice highlight how the temperaments use motivation to communicate different personality types.

Using Temperament to Model Jill’s Persona

Now that we know Jill is an Artisan, it’s time to apply temperament analysis to the rest of the sections in Jill’s persona. Let’s start by identifying key temperament patterns that drive Jill’s actions: Artisans have keen senses, are driven to complete tasks as quickly as possible, trust their impulses, and can become stressed if the world puts too many constraints on them. More than anything, Artisans have an intense need to be free to do what they want, when they want. All of these patterns and motivations are captured in Jill’s persona, which can be seen in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Jill’s Persona, Modeled Using Keirsey Temperament Theory

Artisans enjoy working with their hands, and seem at home with tools and instruments of all kinds. This helps us identify Jill’s technical skill level, which is higher than average because of the Artisan’s exceptionally keen senses. Even though Jill’s age indicates that she did not grow up using the same kinds of technology she uses on the job, we know that Artisans possess the drive to master action skills. Because that drive is a long-term behavioral pattern, it evolves with the society in which she lives and leaves her dreaming of mastering new tools when they become available. Simply put, Jill isn’t one of the people struggling to use our product merely because it is a new piece of technology. This means she may not need (and probably wouldn’t use) an in-depth tutorial video or user manual to get her started. An on-screen tutorial when she first launches the software may be sufficient.

However, just because Jill enjoys learning new technology doesn’t mean she enjoys using technology to complete certain tasks. Jill uses the EHR application every day to complete what must be the most mundane of her tasks as a paramedic. Jill was drawn to this career because being a first responder puts her right in the middle of the action, and filling out paperwork is not very exciting. Artisans seek stimulation constantly, and to that end, they are often impulsive. Jill believes that doing things that aren’t fun or exciting is a waste of time, but she must complete EHRs because it is an important part of her job. It’s likely she doesn’t want to be using our software in the first place, but if she must, Jill wants to master the data input and submission process, so she can work faster.

Artisans can become stressed when they are forced to work within a structured environment with little to no give. Jill gets frustrated when her flexibility and freedom are taken away. When it comes to making choices or taking action, Jill wants to do it on her own terms without interference from the system. She resists being confined or obligated by structure and rules. (Artisans actions are generally aimed at getting them where they want to go as quickly as possible.) Combined with Jill’s frustrations, this pattern of behavior points to her need for flexible parameters and freedom of choice in her product experience.

Keirsey’s analysis of the Artisan temperament is the only ethnographic research used in the creation of Jill’s persona. It provides a basis for persona creation because for each temperament, decisions are described through drive and motivation. These are the fundamental elements on which personas are modeled, whether using Keirsey or traditional methods. This next section pushes our Keirsey-derived persona a bit further by simulating how Jill can inform the design of our application.

Interviewing Jill Anderson, EMT

Now we can ask Jill questions about her ideal interactions and experiences with our product. For example: The job is fast-paced, and paramedics don’t want to spend more time than they have to completing paperwork. With a focus on time management and ease of use, let’s ask Jill pointed questions to find out how our EHR application can be best designed to make her life easier and reduce the amount of time she spends filling out patient health records.

Jill, when you’re entering patient information into the system, would you prefer a chronological or non-linear workflow?

Inputting patient information chronologically makes sense if Jill worked as a physician. Physicians have their days scheduled down to the minute, unlike Jill, who has to fit her record-keeping responsibilities into the unscheduled downtime in her day. Patients, nurses, and doctors alike fill out paperwork in a calm environment that supports a chronological system. On the other hand, Jill is out in the field, juggling calls, and attempting to learn about each new patient’s condition while that patient is in distress. She can’t take the time to fill out form fields in order, nor would she want to. Jill’s persona supports her preference for a non-linear workflow. We already know how important it is that Jill has the freedom to enter data with flexibility, but what does that look like? Her ideal experience would give her the freedom to skip from category to category based on what information she has available at the time of input.

One more thing. Much of a patient’s health record is made up of required information, and notifications about empty form fields are essential to ensure complete information is submitted.

Jill, would you like to receive a notification when you switch from one tab to the next? Or would you prefer to receive all notifications when you click submit?

I’m sure you know Jill well enough by now to answer this question. It would frustrate her beyond belief to have an error notification pop up each time she wants to move from one category tab to the next. Not just because it interrupts the freedom given to her by the non-linear workflow, but that’s the kind of feature that would make our EHR software less intuitive. If we give Jill the freedom to complete categorized patient information in any order, why should we force her to review each form field before she can jump to the next category? Her non-linear freedom should extend past categories to the entirety of the patient’s record. Jill chooses to postpone all incomplete field notifications until the end when she can review them without frustration.

Conclusion

Increasingly, technical communicators and UX professionals, along with the rest of the product team, wish for a speedier user-centered design process. There are currently alternatives to the more time consuming and expensive research processes that were born from waterfall methods of product development, such as conducting rapid user research as part of an agile development sprint or lean UX design practices. However, neither method of research can completely remove the barriers of cost, time, and buy-in from decision makers facing many in our field. Saving some time and money by speeding up the research process is a good start, but there are still teams unable to reach even those abbreviated research goals, and are consequently, releasing minimum viable products, which can lead to product failure, damaged business ethos, and disaffected users.

Keirsey Temperament Theory provides design teams with a scientific framework based on extensive, long-term ethnographic research and psychological analysis. Parallels between the insights we gain after conducting first-hand, ethnographic user research and applying Keirsey Temperament Theory are undeniably similar. Each method is rooted in the examination of a person’s observable, long-term motivations, but when time and money are an issue, the application of Keirsey’s theory to persona modeling could make the difference between a product flop and a delighted end user.

KELSEY LOFTIN is a passionate user experience and website design professional, specializing in UX research, visual design, visual communication, and data visualization. Despite this visual expertise, she still has to wear glasses. Kelsey uses her skills to design for real life, often creating delightful experiences that satisfy users’ unspoken needs.

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