Is there an equivalent of a persona for a group?

If you are building or designing anything to be used by people, personas are a great invention. If you are not familiar with the concept, then here is the Wikipedia link to get you started, but the idea is at heart a simple one that may be grasped very quickly. By creating a (usually fictional) individual and filling out their life story, interests, friends, jobs, etc, you can more easily imagine how people will interact with your designed object, respond to your marketing, navigate your site, etc. Sometimes personas are archetypes, averaged-out or idealised versions of real people/types of people, sometimes (I’d argue more fruitfully) they are just invented individuals with distinct and believable quirks, likes and dislikes. What matters most is that you can imagine how they would behave. It’s primarily a means of building empathy for end users that allows one to better understand how and why people are going to respond to and use whatever you are designing: a means of both generalising and at the same time relating to target audiences as individuals. Combined with scenarios, in which you imagine different contexts and circumstances in which your personas will find themselves, persona design is a time-tested and powerful tool.

But is there anything similar for groups (and here I am talking about ‘groups’ as being what Terry Anderson and I have described as ‘the many’ for want of a better word, not as a particular kind of collection of people)?

A persona, as generally used, tends to come to represent a group in the sense of being a way of categorising types of people. But that’s not a group as we generally understand it: that’s a set of people with shared characteristics. Groups are constituted by the relationships of their members with each other. They are communities of people who are in some way linked with each other for some kind of shared purpose or reason. People in groups interact with each other and with other groups. And there are many kinds of group. Here are just a few examples:

  • gangs
  • associations
  • congregations
  • crowds
  • project teams
  • classes
  • pub regulars
  • committees
  • communities of practice
  • communities of interest
  • working groups
  • geographical communities
  • societies
  • clubs
  • political parties
  • unions
  • movements
  • companies
  • departments
  • co-workers
  • social networks
  • neighbourhoods
  • competitors
  • organizations
  • collectives
  • couples
  • nations
  • partnerships
  • etc
  • etc
  • etc

For almost all of these types of group, each particular group will have distinctive features and characteristics, particular dynamics, means of constituting membership, histories, behaviours, that will distinguish it from every other group. Groups are not, as a rule, the sum of the behaviours of their members – the way that they are constituted in relation to each other and the way the group itself is located as an entity in relation to the rest of the world means that the group is something more and something different. In fact, in many ways it would be reasonable to think of them as distinct agents in the world. This relates back to work that I have been doing for quite some time, including my extension of Terry Anderson’s interaction equivalency theorem in which I posited that the group is itself a first-class actor in a learning system.

In much the same way as there is great value from imagining how an individual will respond to a designed system, what are his or her needs, what are his or her expectations, fears, values and beliefs, habits, we might gain a lot of insights by doing something similar for groups, not to replace personas (which are enormously valuable) but to extend their value. By imagining how our environments/tools/designed objects affect particular groups for better or worse we might, with luck, design places and things that have greater value to them.

What would a group-persona (maybe a ‘groupa’) look like? Well, I guess it would have a name. It would have members (perhaps defined by personas). It might have purposes, values, perhaps a location or region, though it might not (that might be what makes it interesting). It would have a structure of some sort – maybe a network, a hierarchy, a formal set of connections. It might well have subgroups or overlaps with other groups. It may share aesthetics, or ethics, or interests. It may be defined in relation to what it is not or what it opposes, or with what other groups it is affiliated. It would certainly have a size, though that might be a bit uncertain or fuzzy and would be expected on many occasions to change, sometimes considerably. Which I guess implies it would have a dynamic pattern of change – growth/shrinkage, churn of members, changes in patterns of interaction or relationships that constitute the group.

I think there is a lot of scope for this kind of process in social system design.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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