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Posted by on May 28, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

Community planning with imaginary friends – using personas

The Regional Plan Association is working on New York City and its Borough’s long range Fourth Generation Plan.  In order to forecast future needs, RPA created a set of ten avatars to represent New Yorkers. These avatars, or personas, are an increasingly popular tool used in Design Thinking and Service Design. Creating personas early in a planning process has several advantages:

  • Creating a person lets you enter someone’s world without invading a real person’s privacy.
  • Creating personas is a cost-effective way to  think about your audience.  Focus groups and interviews are still relevant, but can be costly.  Personas let you understand target groups prior to larger investments in customer or stakeholder development.
  • Personas allow flexibility and forgiveness as you develop new planning processes. Suppose you chart an incorrect course or ask the wrong questions?  With personas, you can tighten up the process without wasting your stakeholders’  time.

RPA’s set of avatars is instructive:

  1. RPA developed the avatars based on a statistically representative group of New Yorkers.  For example, the 10 avatars represent (roughly) the region’s  homeownership status, children living in households, age, income, etc…
  2. While RPA could have presented typical Census data, use of avatars turned dry data into a story about a person, their life and everyday pressures and opportunities. These stories better define present needs and possible future actions. This is the essence of long range planning for both individuals and the places they live.
  3. Planning elements are tested against all 10 personas to make sure final plan elements apply to the range of New Yorkers in the region.
  4. The graphic presentation is refreshing, giving both a useful snapshot of data and an engaging story about New Yorkers’ lives.

You may be wondering how to do this yourself.  Although use of personas in urban planning is somewhat new, there are a lot of resources from business management.  For more examples, please see our “Design Thinking” board on Pinterest (many examples are focused on use of technology and/or business, but they can be adapted for planning purposes).  Keep in mind:

  • When creating personas, the core features include name, photo (usually stock photography), age, location, avocation, problems/challenges, motivations, goals, and a quote they would likely give you regarding their life and planning.
  • You will still need to conduct in-person interviews and public engagement on a wider scale.  Personas are not a substitute for civic engagement.
  • Don’t recycle personas for every planning activity.  This ensures you pay attention to the specific planning process and keep up with changing demographics and trends.
  • Personas/avatars can make colleagues uncomfortable as you navigate a strange world between real and make believe.  However, personas help accurately address community concerns without putting real people on the spot.
  • Use of personas is only getting started.  For example your city might be able to compare personas for groups with different opinions on a public investment, or begin to chart better public engagement in a world of increasing choices on how to get local news.
persona template

Persona template from

Personas are just one element of design thinking.  We’ll explore other facets in blogs ahead as they relate to planning.  Send us (or better post) examples of your community’s use of service design, design thinking and personas.

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