The danger of demographics

Are you using demographics in your customer personas? You could be introducing bias to your decision making and creating persona stereotypes that will limit your business’ potential. 

Image of a woman with a child using a tablet - using demographics rather than life stage in our customer persona may stereotype the woman

Most of us have probably seen customer personas or avatars that have a demographic section. The intention is to help bring this fictional representation of customers to life in the eyes of the business. Knowing their age, gender, occupation and so on does help put flesh on the bones. After all, that’s what we want from our customer personas – to create a representation that is relate-able and encourages empathy.

These demographics are doing more harm than they are good

I’m going to describe someone using their demographics – married, is a qualified plumber and gas fitter, drives a white van, left school at 16 and did an apprenticeship, early 40s, lives in a terraced house.

So what image of this person formed in your mind when you read that? Did you picture a man or a woman? Was the terraced house a small Victorian one or a grand Georgian residence? Was the white van one with a company name down the side or a VW California ready for a weekend at the beach?

Demographics open the door to stereotyping

Whilst we may do our very best not to stereotype people, everyone has heard something and/or experienced something that could influence our thinking. Even if we, the people that create the customer personas, can hold our hands upon our hearts and say that at no time do we ever stereotype, we cannot say that about the people that may use them in the future.

With stereotypes comes discrimination 

Yes, that is a strong statement! It’s also true.

If you had demographics on a persona that indicated they were elderly, would your decision making around their use of technology be different? If your persona indicated they were male, how would that impact your marketing strategy?

Demographics may encourage us to shut out potential customers or make expensive but inaccurate decisions.

“Please remove age, gender, ethnicity, location from your personas. None of these things cause behaviour/thinking. But they do cause assumptions.” Indi Young

Demographics can be used in relation to behaviour and attitudes

Occasionally demographics are the only thing that we can use to really understand a customer’s goals or attitudes. 

For luxury goods there is a massive difference in affordability that’s dependent on income. Most people will save or borrow to buy expensive luxury items. Others with more disposable income won’t give it a great deal of thought.

The level of income is affecting people’s attitude to the product’s affordability. So when this happens it should be shared as it provides an explanation.

Image of a woman with a child using a tablet - using demographics rather than life stage in our customer persona may stereotype the woman
Use behaviours and attitudes instead

Are your customers’ demographics really behind the hurdles they’re experiencing when dealing with your business? Are your customers’ demographics truly influencing what they do and how they think?

It’s much more likely that the root causes of hurdles and key drivers are going to be found in their behaviours and attitudes. Don’t hide these behind demographics. Investigate them. Find out what makes your customers tick. Put that in your customer personas.

Still think age is important?

Age is just a number! It’s increasingly irrelevant.

We have children later in life. Some of us retire early, some of us never want to. Some people start their own business without ever working for someone else, others work in the same job for years. Some people are newly weds in their eighties. 

Standing in the school playground to pick up my children, I’m surrounded by people all there for the same reason. We’re collecting our children to make sure they’re looked after and are safe at the end of the school day. We’re men and women. We’re all ages. We’re parents, grandparents, carers, au pairs, aunties, uncles, big brothers and sisters. 

If you really believe ‘age’ is important, use a life stage. Or better still, think about why you think age is so important. What common characteristics does this age group have? Is it possible that other people in other age groups may share these characteristics? Is it possible that there are people within this age group that don’t?

Last bit…

Oh, and if you want to avoid gender bias, then don’t write ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘his’, ‘her’ anywhere on your customer persona. You can use the gender neutral ‘they’, ‘them’ or ‘their’.

Or you can use ‘I’ and write it like it’s your customer telling you all about themselves so you can get to know them better. Because isn’t that the point?

Image of woman worried

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