The Oban Blog

Culture-Specific Personas

I am continuing to contribute to this blog some thoughts and ideas arising out of my postgraduate research in international design and HCI. Here is a piece summarising very briefly my exploration of culture-specific personas. I had been working on this concept for some time now but have recently discovered that multivariate testing might be the answer to my questions.

Here’s a summary of my research and what I tried to achieve.


Any design team must ask themselves first WHO they are trying to address with their product, and then try to understand HOW their users would use the product.

I have identified that the localisation industry faces exactly the same kind of questions, but with regard to their international markets and users, and therefore requires better tools to be able to competently and quickly translate from one culture to another without the cost of foreign travels and conducting contextual user studies abroad.

This brings us to the concept of personas – a tool widely employed by designers and marketers for understanding their target user group. I wanted to explore to what extent they could be adapted to serve the needs of the localization sector.


Personas are detailed descriptions of people who represent target users. Though they do not exist in the real world, they have a name, a family, a job and a life-style. They are created from a number of sources of information, such as demographics, market segmentation, ethnography and user interviews, which then feed into the persona’s personal details, life-style, goals, values, attitude to technology, skills, etc. Personas need to be specific to appear real and credible, but at the same time they have to remain hypothetical and represent an amalgam of many users rather than be based on one real person.

Personas have proven to be revolutionary. They were first formally described in 1999 in a book which outlines the processes and tools employed in the software design company Cooper Interaction Design since 1990. In Cooper’s own words, personas ‘are hypothetical archetypes of actual users’. Cooper argues that design often suffers from trying to please too many people at once, therefore designing for a specific user guarantees far better results.

Seeing that personas have become such a successful and highly flexible tool in user-centred design, my idea was to investigate their appropriateness for design for international purposes. i.e. for localisation.


To test my theory, I embarked on the task of creating some culture-specific personas representing Polish internet users. For this purpose I used a wide range of data specific to Poland: user demographics, marketing segmentation, cultural modelling and cultural variables (using cultural variables for creating personas was a completely novel approach), academic papers, as well as my own survey and interviews with specific people.

As a result, I created three personas with varying backgrounds, skills and attitudes to the internet – but all embedded in the Polish culture.


Testing whether these culture-specific personas could successfully support a website designer who is unfamiliar with the culture he/she is designing for was a tricky part of this experiment. I couldn’t expect people to just design a website using my personas, so instead, I asked them to read my personas and then answer a short questionnaire and do a small task. This resulted in some positive feedback from a number of designers and localisers I sent my Polish personas to, but did not provide the hard facts and figures which could satisfy a scientist.

However, the practical part of the study – the actual creation of culture-specific personas – raised some interesting questions and led to certain conclusions, which in itself deemed my research worthwhile.


Ok, so among other findings, I have established that culture-specific personas – great as they may sound in theory – would be rather unpractical and very time-consuming in real localisation projects. And this is where cultural multivariate testing comes into play.

Cultural multivariate testing allows us to optimise websites to appeal to specific cultures in a very direct way. Because of the nature of MVT, it allows users to reveal their preferences through direct interaction with the website and does not require any intermediary measures, such as personas, to develop design solutions. Assuming that we have a good idea of what to test, we let the target users make the design decisions for us – and that’s the beauty of this method. Obviously, setting up multivariable tests also requires time and effort, but seeing the increase in sales conversions they generate, they are well worth the investment.

So while personas remain a highly versatile and a well-established method in design in general, when it comes to website localisation – I would definitely recommend having a go with cultural multivariate testing. Let your audience have a say – and translate their foreign tongues into the language of cultural usability!


Cooper, A. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1999