What Are Anti-Personas and How Do You Use Them?
If you’re familiar with user experience design (UX), odds are you’ve worked with user personas.
Instead of beginning by creating a list of features or requirements, your first step is to write up a blurb plus a photo for a character that brings to life a particular audience’s needs, assumptions, background, etc.
But even designers who are experienced with UX may have never heard of an interesting twist on the concept: anti-personas.
In this article, we’ll explain what anti-personas are, why you might want to use them, and how to create anti–personas that will help your design project succeed.
Why You Need Anti-Personas
One of the crucial differences between businesses that thrive and those that fail is that successful businesses have a deep understanding of who their customers are — and who aren’t.
You might wonder, why would you ever want to limit your customer base?
You can find clues to the answer in an old joke: we are losing money on each sale, but we’re making it up in volume.
Attracting the wrong customers will cost you money and time you can’t afford.
The wrong customers can eat up your sales staff’s time chasing leads that will never pan out.
They can chew up endless hours of support.
The wrong customers can generate lots of negative user reviews.
They can end up hurting the customers who pay your bills. If you’re spending a lot of time and energy on people who aren’t a good fit, you won’t have the time to give your best customers the attention they deserve.
It’s also emotionally exhausting for your staff to spend a lot of time on people who aren’t a good fit for your product. In fact, if you attract too many users who shouldn’t be using your product, you can end up losing some of your best staff due to burnout.
And the customers who are a bad fit? You aren’t doing them any favors either.
There are people who’re only happy when they’re pissed off at someone. But most customers who are a bad fit do not want to end up purchasing a product that doesn’t work for them.
They also don’t want to waste time researching a product that’s not right for them.
Finally, there are people you don’t want to attract not because it’s a bad deal for them but because they are a danger to your customers.
The last thing you want to do is to build a product or a site that is a gold mine for con artists or people who commit identity fraud.
In short, as a designer, your goal is not only to increase the odds of attracting the right kind of customers but also to reduce the odds of attracting the wrong kind of customers.
That’s why it’s a good idea to create anti-personas. Anti-personas are personas of people you either don’t want to attract or who you want to discourage from visiting your website or purchasing your product.
The Three Types of Anti-Personas
There are three types of people for whom you may want to write anti-patterns: people who shouldn’t be using your product because they could be hurt by it, people who will try to use your product to hurt others, and people who aren’t a good fit for the product.
People Who Can’t Safely Use Your Product
One of the most obvious types of anti-patterns is small children who you want to prevent from accidentally hurting themselves.
Say you’re designing a bottle that’s going to store pills.
You want to make sure that little kids can’t open that bottle and eat the pills. So you might want an anti-persona of a child who’s hit their terrible two’s.
Similarly, suppose you’re designing a container that adults can use to organize the pills they need to take each day of the week.
A child anti-persona might remind you that if you’ve decided to design the container so it’s a little more festive, you want to avoid coming up with a container that will look like a really fun toy to a young child.
Thieves, Scammers, and Stalkers
Most designers will rarely need an anti-persona of people who need to be protected against their product. More often, they’ll need to create anti-personas of people who their product needs to protect against.
Not everyone who has to worry about security should create anti-personas that address this threat.
If all your developers need to do is follow basic, standard security best practices, there’s no reason to spend the time writing security anti-personas.
Or to put it another way, if your product owner and developers need an anti-persona to remind them to consider two factor authentication and to ensure the product has protections against injection attacks, you’ve got a problem that no anti-persona is going to fix.
But let’s say you are a bank. For every new product you develop, you need to think about all the ways a creative, malicious hacker or con artist might try to use your new product to steal your clients’ money, identity, etc.
That entails both hardening the bank’s defenses as well as coming up with ways to monitor for attempted and successful break-ins.
In that case, developing one or more anti-personas could be extremely useful.
Customers Who Are a Bad Fit
Creating anti-personas that address safety and security issues is pretty straightforward. The last type of anti-persona, customers who are bad fit, are a bit trickier.
Odds are you will encounter two types of customers who are bad fit.
The first are customers who will never buy your product.
Most of the time, it isn’t worth creating an anti-persona for these customers.
As the world becomes increasingly digital, if a business has a lot of customers who constantly browse but never buy, it’s not a big deal — scaling up a site has become so much cheaper and easier to do.
In fact, there are many digital products that are designed specifically to attract lots of customers who will never pay. If you have a to-do app, for example, to create a successful sales funnel you may need lots of customers who won’t ever pay but who make it such a popular app that it attracts customers who will generate revenue.
Are you designing a real-world store? If you attract lots of customers who are never going to buy, that could tank the business.
That’s where anti-personas could come in handy.
The other type of customers who aren’t a good fit are people who did buy your product but really shouldn’t have.
For example, suppose you’re designing webpages for a tool that’s really only for pros.
You could easily end up with a bunch of amateurs who buy the tool and then write negative reviews and complain on social media that it’s much too hard to learn or that it’s too expensive.
If you could figure out how to steer these customers away from your product before they decide to buy it, you could save yourself a lot of bad publicity.
Similarly, if you offer services for small businesses who have very tight budgets, you don’t want to accidentally attract large corporate clients who’ll get upset because you don’t offer the degree of handholding and personal service that they have come to expect.
An anti-persona that helps you keep these large clients in mind could help your business grow in a way that is sustainable over the long run.
Where this type of anti-persona is particularly useful is in helping you find the right balance.
For example, you may want to attract some customers who really don’t need a product that’s as powerful or has as many features as your pro tool does.
They may be intimidated by your tool. But they’re okay with that.
They don’t expect to use your tool more than once or twice; buying it Is more about expressing who they are than about solving a technical problem.
At the same time, you don’t want to attract the type of amateurs who will use your tool, get really frustrated, and write nasty reviews
Finding the balance between the two isn’t easy. So having a mix of personas and anti-personas could be extremely helpful.
In these circumstances, it’s critical to really understand where your different audiences are coming from so you have a better sense of what trade-offs will discourage the customers who shouldn’t buy while encouraging those who should.
That’s a heck of a lot easier to pull off if you have a vivid image in your head of each of these types of people.
How to Develop Anti-Personas
How do you create anti-personas?
By using the same techniques you used to create personas — interviewing people, conducting research online, brainstorming, etc.
But creating effective anti-personas often requires a different focus or a different balance between competing trade-offs.
So, here are a few tips about how to tweak the methods you use to create personas so you can design anti-personas that can help develop designs that fit your clients’ needs.
Analyze the Quantitative And Qualitative Data You Already Have
One of the first places you should begin is with any quantitative and qualitative data you have on hand.
For example, you can learn a lot from Google Analytics about how users are using your website.
Social media is another great place to get insights about who’s using your products, who’s not happy with them, and why.
Negative user feedback from people who purchased your product or similar products can also be extremely helpful.
Suppose too many people are complaining that your product, which is positioned as a high-end good, is too expensive. You may need an anti-persona that captures who these customers are and helps you focus on how to design your website, etc. to steer them away so they won’t be disappointed.
Another good place to look for the need for anti-personas are documents such as your product’s FAQ.
An FAQ often has an implicit anti-persona behind some of the questions it’s answering. If you can transform what’s implicit in the FAQ into an explicit anti-persona, it may clarify other strategies for dissuading customers who aren’t a good fit.
Finally, if you’re working on security-driven anti-personas, there’s a good chance there’s a bunch of data on what type of attacks you can expect or have already seen, the common traits of the attackers, etc.
And if you aren’t finding the security-related data you need? That might be a sign that your company’s
security initiatives need to be seriously ramped up.
Talk to Users — If It Makes Sense
Anyone creating user personas is going to use every opportunity they have to talk to potential and current users. With anti-personas, it’s a more complicated story.
For starters, it may be difficult to find the right kind of customers to develop a good-anti-persona.
Even if you can find the right customers, given that talking to customers can be fairly labor-intensive, you may decide it’s not worth the effort.
To be truly effective, personas often need to capture subtleties that are hard to detect unless you talk to people.
While it’s not always the case, many anti-personas are straightforward enough that you won’t gain much from a bunch of conversations with users.
But there are cases where it makes sense to spend the time talking with users.
For example, if you have a number of customers who are providing low customer satisfaction scores and it isn’t clear why, having conversations could be very helpful.
Similarly, if you have users who are your biggest fans but are rarely or never become paying customers, it could be quite useful to talk with them; you might even discover the key to getting them to start purchasing your product.
Talk To Staff
While users can be a huge asset for developing personas, if you’re creating anti-personas your business’ staff are often a better bet.
For example, customer service reps spend every day talking with your customers. If anyone has a good picture of some of the customers who should have never purchased your product or who are a real drain on your company, it’s these reps and their supervisors.
Similarly, sale staff probably have a pretty good idea of some of the types of leads who almost never convert.
And if you have an online forum, Slack channel, or any other form of online community, the people who manage it will know a lot about the kinds of customers who are great fodder for an anti-persona.
When you interview staff who spend a lot of time with users, sometimes it’s useful to be upfront about what you’re doing.
You might even explain what an anti-persona is and ask them if they have thoughts about any anti-personas you should develop.
In fact, it might be worthwhile running brainstorming sessions with several groups of staff.
For example, using an approach similar to card sorting, you could have staff brainstorm a list of behavior of disgruntled customers on Post-it notes, group the Post-it notes, then step back and see if these groups help to elicit one or more anti-personas.
For security-related anti-personas, you also want to interview and/or brainstorm with staff — whoever is responsible for monitoring and defending against malicious users.
Here too, being explicit about the fact that you are trying to develop anti-personas might be useful.
The key to creating effective layers of defense against attackers is to think like the enemy. And there’s no better way to do that than to have a vivid image of who these enemies are.
Developers, system admins, staff who monitor for financial fraud, and others who are on the frontline of the war against attackers probably already have an implicit image in their head of who they are going up against. Working them to convert their implicit model into explicit anti-personas may help them and you come up with design strategies that give them a leg up.
Simultaneously, Iteratively Develop Personas and Anti-Personas
Some UX designers argue that the best way to create anti-personas is to first write up your user personas.
That impulse is understandable. It feels like a more orderly approach to planning the work.
Here’s the problem with that approach.
I think they’re wrong.
Design is often about finding a balance between pulling towards and pushing away.
For example, suppose you’re designing a medication dispenser.
As we discussed above, you want to make it difficult for children to open the dispenser.
At the same time, you want to make it as easy as possible to use for people who are elderly and others who have arthritis or other chronic issues with their hands that make opening containers difficult.
If you’ve ever cursed while trying to open a “childproof” lid, you can appreciate how tricky it is to find the right balance.
That’s why it might make more sense to simultaneously, iteratively develop the user persona of someone who’s elderly and the anti-persona of a child.
Similarly, it might be easier to balance security needs and ease-of-use if you develop the user personas and the anti-personas together.
This is particularly true if you’re going to be spending a lot of time talking with staff.
It might be easier to elicit useful user persona info from customer support staff if you begin by letting them vent about the behavior of irritating customers that will be incorporated into anti-personas.
Consider Creating Feedback Loops
Most user personas change over time. But designers often don’t bother to update them.
That’s not surprising. Staff may already have enough of an intuitive feel for who the business’ most important customers are that spending time tweaking the personas isn’t worth it.
But with some types of anti-personas, it can be well worth revisiting them on a regular basis.
If the organization you’re designing for has a lot of security threats, odds are they will substantially evolve over time. Build a better mousetrap, and the mice get smarter.
If the organization is going to keep up with the mice, updated anti-personas could be quite useful — especially if staff need to think like the enemy to anticipate the next set of strategies for attacking your product.
Finally, in the case of bad fit anti-personas, you may not have enough experience at the beginning to build accurate anti-personas. So you may need to tweak them as your organization gains experience.
Use Anti-Personas As an Early Warning System
Anti-personas can also serve as an early warning system.
During the process of developing an anti-persona, you may run across red flags or other signs that the business is running into trouble.
A smart business would do well to take advantage of this heads up.
If you want to take advantage of this opportunity, the key is to have conversations upfront with upper management about this potential use of anti-personas.
If you succeed, not only will you help the organization, but you also may win support for ensuring you have the time you need to develop effective anti-personas.
What to Do If You’re An Early Stage Startup
What if you’re working for a startup and they’re in the beginning stages? You want have any in-house data, and you want have any existing users.
So what do you do?
Since you don’t have a product, there aren’t any user reviews. But you can learn a lot about anti-personas from the user reviews of your competitor’s products.
Similarly, if you know folks in the industry who are in sales, customer service, etc. are you know people who could connect you with these types of frontline staff, you might be able to informally learn from their experience.
And just a 10 minute Google search for your competitor’s early blog posts may help you identify issues your competitors initially faced that could help you develop your anti-personas.
If you just can’t find enough info to create good anti-personas? Don’t sweat it.
Just do a simple sketch of personas and anti-personas, then iteratively redesign them as users react to your product.
Conclusion: What are Anti-Personas?
Designed correctly, anti-personas can be an extremely valuable tool in your toolkit.
If you can assist a company in avoiding the wrong customers while also attracting the right kind of customers, your design work can play an important role in helping them build a thriving business. Thanks for reading this article on What are Anti-Personas.