How can grounded theory aid design ethnographies in creating stronger user personas?

In creating new products and improving existing ones, designers and technical communicators regularly rely on user personas that represent their imagined user base or audience. Often, those personas are created with an informal approach that may or may not be grounded in hard data. But there’s one methodology that’s thought to produce strong data collection: the anthropological practice of ethnography. In studies, ethnography has even provided better data than focus groups and questionnaires (157). 

So far, there hasn’t been a widely accepted method for creating personas, and often they’re generated with an informal approach. But a 2021 case study from researchers P.J. White and Frank DeVitt out in the “Journal of Usability Studies” provides an excellent model for analyzing design ethnographies using grounded theory or qualitative data analysis and then creating user personas out of the resulting data. 

White and DeVitt’s article, “Creating User Personas from Ethnography and Grounded Theory” argues that though companies have sometimes dismissed ethnography as time-consuming and cost-prohibitive, ethnography’s ability to gather deeper user insights makes it an ideal research method. The authors walk readers through a potential grounded theory (or analysis) process for gathering, coding, distilling, and evaluating ethnographic data resulting in several user personas.

White and DeVitt created a case study from a design ethnography of participants over age 65 who were interviewed about their cooking and heating needs. In the first phase after the study’s completion, researchers color-coded the interview transcripts and looked for patterns or themes. Once recurring themes were recognized, researchers distilled the larger data set to a reduced version so they could display and analyze the data for persona design. Next, they created base personas, deciding on a broad taxonomy into which they grouped the core user categories. For instance, some of their categories include couples, capable singles, affluent individuals, and rural ones. Researchers then created a data display, allowing them to see a visual representation of how the coded elements linked to each other. Lastly, they designed the personas. Sure, there’s many phases to the process, but the work results in a richer set of user profiles.

The authors argue that one particular strength of their ethnography-plus-grounded-theory equation is that coding the data provides evidence as to why certain decisions were made in crafting the personas.

Advice for Usability Researchers

White and DeVitt conclude that grounded theory provides a “more systemic” approach to creating personas, though they never hint at whether the personas themselves are stronger than ones created through other research analysis methods (174). They further admit that a grounded theory approach is still slower than many other methodologies, calling for further research to streamline the process to make it more accessible to a wider group of practitioners and organizations.

White and DeVitt offered several suggestions for researchers and designers. Their first is that combining qualitative analysis and data visualization can enhance the analysis process, and they recommend coding fieldwork text and images into larger themes right after fieldwork has finished. They further suggest creating groups or taxonomies of users early on to help with synthesizing large amounts of data. 

Even if it takes longer to create a personas from a design ethnography, product developers may find it helpful to adopt the methods that White and DeVitt suggest. The ethnographic process may be slower and more expensive, but gaining rich insights will help companies spend less in the longer run and even aid in creating a better product. A stronger persona leads to a stronger product that’s better targeted to its users’ needs. Who can argue with that?


Creating Personas from Design Ethnography and Grounded Theory, by PJ. White and Frank DeVitt

Viewpoint Written by Erica Lies, Texas State University

Edited by Kimberly N Uzzel, Texas State University

2 thoughts on “How can grounded theory aid design ethnographies in creating stronger user personas?”

  1. Pingback: Review of our paper: Creating Personas from Design Ethnography and Grounded Theory – DESIGN CHANGE

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