Persona woe

Catching up on blog entries this morning I notice one from Joanna Bawa reproducing one from Andrew Hinton which refers to Alan Cooper’s “The Origin of Personas“. Now particularly because I have been closely associated with the usability and HCI community, I need to take account of how that community uses words. The Andrew Hinton piece clearly implies a usage of the term ‘persona’ to mean some kind of representative fictional character, stereotype or archetype who might use some software, or perhaps be engaged in a wider process – some character thought about and designed for. At the bottom of the article there are some links to other very interesting writings on the topic. People have come in and grabbed the term ‘persona’, uncompromisingly. Time to escape. Oh woe – the “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings”!

And I see why, as well. A ‘persona’, being originally a mask, can be worn by more than one person. It can be seen more like a role. The depersonalized persona?

In contrast, what I have been trying to get at in previous writings (other posts here and here) has been something much more intensely personal. It is the set of typical behaviours of a particular individual in a particular context or setting, along with their values in that setting, their attitudes, their propensities. It’s so close to the idea of identity that I was calling them identities for a while, before I admitted that the term ‘identity’ was too firmly entrenched in the realm of those who write software to check that only those allowed somewhere can get in.

Then this January came a new book, “Multiplicity”, from Rita Carter, which simply uses the term ‘personality’, indeed, making a virtue of the connection with multiple personality disorders. You could class it as popular psychology if you like, but in any case I think it is very worthwhile. Of all the people who have discussed matters in this area, Rita Carter is the one who comes closest to identifying just what it is that I regard as so important. The main thing that she does not go into as much as I would have liked is personal values, which to me are very clearly a function of the personality (in her multiplicitous sense), not the individual.

Addendum: Carter suggests this as a short definition of personality: “a coherent and characteristic way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and behaving.”

The most recent paper I have written much of, presented in the Medev event in Newcastle recently, does talk about professional identity, and fleetingly uses the term persona, but dwells more on what is really personal. Is it time to move on, led by Rita Carter, and switch term from ‘persona’ to ‘personality’?

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