Personas: Inclusivity Powered by People and Data

The voices of citizens from marginalized and underserved populations, such as older adults and people with disabilities, are vital to the development of more inclusive cities. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology designed a solution that could help the planning process.

In a paper published in the Journal of E-Planning Research, the researchers propose expanding inclusive policy design approaches by using “personas” — dynamic, low-resource tools to include and actively engage citizen stakeholders. In their research, they explored the use of data-driven personas as a way to provide information about the needs of older adults with disabilities and inform the design of support services, policies, and technologies.

“We believe that end users should be involved early and often in the design process,” said Sarah Farmer, research scientist at the Center for Advanced Communications Policy, managing director of Georgia Tech’s HomeLab, and lead author on the paper. “There is simply no amount of subject matter expert involvement that can replace citizen involvement.”

In developing designs and policies, it is not unusual to rely on established thinking and frameworks that have been helpful in the past. According to Farmer, this tendency risks reinforcing social inequity and existing technological and socioeconomic barriers. It is not uncommon for planners to bring citizen stakeholders to the table late in the development process, but by that point, there is an increased chance that policies will hit roadblocks or be sent back to the drawing board.

However, by intentionally engaging more inclusive groups of citizens early in the design and planning process, planners can help better focus policies and expected outcomes from the beginning. The result could be greater independent living, more personalized care, better mobility, and improved educational and employment outcomes for those populations, Farmer said.

“Personas can be a tool to improve inclusive research about older individuals with disabilities,” Farmer said. “They can be used to position their experiences in the early development stages of policy and design development, rather than erasing or minimizing their experiences.”

Creating Personas

Personas are a resource with applications across many industries. The personas outlined in the researchers’ paper were initially created for a design challenge for graduate students. The students’ challenge was to create home design solutions for individuals over the age of 50 with pre-existing mobility disabilities who had begun experiencing normative age-related decline.

The researchers wanted to know how age was impacting the existing adaptive strategies that the older adults had implemented into their routines. They collected participant data from multiple interviews, surveys, observations, imagery, and anecdotal evidence and entered it into a database organized by types of activities.  Activity categories included assistance available from others, primary motivators, devices used, mobility aids used, home modifications, physical environment accommodations, damages to the home, barriers to mobility, changes over time, unmet needs, and ideal solutions.

Personas were then created by selecting a major issue or challenge identified during data collection and then adding details derived from study data but assembled in ways that protected the identities of the research participants. Privacy is crucial, Farmer said, as the information can be highly personal – including toilet transfers, hygiene practices, and sleeping environments. Data and observations from multiple participants were also combined into one persona to better represent general trends seen across participants. The final persona product, as seen in the example above, paints a nuanced picture of citizens and the challenges they face.

Personas in Practice

The researchers tested a prototype of the personas model to help design a policy proposal to create an inclusive innovation network for military veterans with STEM training and increase veteran participation in technology related start-ups. By incorporating veteran stakeholder voices and experiences into the discussion, the workshop participants were able to generate several policy inputs that aimed to facilitate greater participation of veterans with disabilities in the STEM economy.

In another example, the researchers led a personas-based session for a commercial tech company that was developing an app. Despite being armed with an enormous amount of quantitative data about technology user groups, the researchers found that executives were less interested in looking at their numbers. They preferred to hear stories about participants – in the form of personas – and their experiences using the technology and what they wanted out of it. In the case of the tech firm, personas became a way to talk through data with people who were not numbers-oriented, and offered solutions to make products more marketable to specific groups.

“At their core, personas are a way to capture and assemble a lot of data, with the depth of data taking preference over breadth,” Farmer said. “They provide a narrative for decision makers while bringing citizen stakeholders and end users into the design process. By using personas, designers and planners can create more informed and inclusive solutions to societal challenges and help citizen stakeholders thrive.”


Note: The content of the featured persona infographic was created for this article by Georgia Tech researchers. It is not literally “data-driven” in this context, but inspired by personas used by the researchers in real studies.

Writer: Catherine Barzler, Institute Communications

Graphic Design: Tim Hynes, Georgia Tech Research Institute

Citation: Farmer, S., Bricout, J. C., Baker, P. M., & Solomon, J. (2022). Personas, the Pandemic, and Inclusive, Synthetic, Smart City Planning. International Journal of E-Planning Research (IJEPR), 11(1), 1-15.



The Georgia Institute of Technology, or Georgia Tech, is one of the top public research universities in the U.S., developing leaders who advance technology and improve the human condition.

The Institute offers business, computing, design, engineering, liberal arts, and science degrees. Its more than 46,000 students, representing 50 states and more than 150 countries, study at the main campus in Atlanta, at campuses in France and China, and through distance and online learning.

As a leading technological university, Georgia Tech is an engine of economic development for Georgia, the Southeast, and the nation, conducting more than $1 billion in research annually for government, industry, and society.

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Catherine Barzler, Senior Research Writer/Editor