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What’s in a Persona? Using fictional characters to create a shared understanding of community members in Holarua.

In Hamutuk, a multi-sector nutrition initiative funded by the Australian government, we are using human centered design techniques to help identify new ways to combat malnutrition in Timor-Leste.

One design tool we are using is a Persona. The goal of a persona, is to describe how certain types of people behave. Using research and in-depth interviews it tries to understand an individual’s key goals, constraints, behaviours as well as strategies for engagement.

Persona’s aren’t new — they first popped up in a book published in 1998 called ‘The Inmates Are Running the Asylum”. The book aimed to guide people on how to build software that was user-centered and based around the needs and behaviours of actual people.

Since its inception, personas have expanded into many different areas, from better understanding consumer purchasing habits, designing better hospital waiting rooms, to guiding the design of Microsoft Word. Increasingly however, we are seeing these techniques move over into the international development space. Population Services International, an NGO working in reproductive health, uses personas and audience analysis to support its social marketing interventions. At Catalpa, we have used personas for a long time across all of our initiates in health, aid transparency, education, agriculture etc. to better anchor our decision making around the real needs of people.

In late 2016, the Hamutuk program ran a multi-sector design workshop with local partners in Holarua. We wanted to distill local partners’ knowledge into a simple design process and develop a common understanding of the program’s target audience.

Partners working in diverse teams came together to develop Personas representing key target groups. Some of these groups are an adolescent girl, a pregnant woman, and a lactating woman. Hamutuk personas included an individual’s name and demographic details (age, marital status, number of children, education level, job). Behaviours were another key focus of personas, identifying user’s key goals, motivations, and their knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding nutrition promoting behaviours (e.g. exclusive breastfeeding, hand washing with soap). Hamutuk partners also identified touch points for each persona- describing their daily routine, communication channels, influencers, and social groups.

“We learned a lot from others in the group, like different perspectives of women in Holarua”

After the exercise, teams shared their Personas within the larger group of over 14 partner organisations and discussed similarities and differences. A Hamutuk partner commenting on her experience developing personas during the training said, “We learned a lot from others in the group, like different perspectives of women in Holarua”

Another key lesson was that we are all working with the same range of individuals. There is a broad range of collective opportunities across each partner to support the objectives and behaviour change goals of others. For example, the same pregnant mother is interacting with a family planning organisation, as well as receiving food preparation training from a local NGO, and attending a sanitation workshop with a water and sanitation partner.

For us this is the first step. The Hamutuk program will continue refining these Personas. The Personas will be augmented with findings from a formative research study to be conducted by Helen Keller International in February. This will further explore behaviours and motivations of our target audience through detailed interviews.

The Personas will help Hamutuk to focus on people, their needs and their motivations.


By Meghan Arakelian

Meghan Arakelian is the Nutrition Project Manager at Catalpa. Prior to joining Catalpa, Meghan was a Fulbright-Clinton Fellow in Timor-Leste where she worked in the Nutrition Department at the Ministry of Health as a Special Assistant. She holds a Masters of Public Administration in Development Practice from Columbia University, and a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs from George Washington University. Read more about Meghan here