Designing with Empathy

The difference between Actors and Personas, and their irreplaceable value.

In an increasingly competitive market, technology is less and less a differentiator, and experience is paramount – so it is crucial to understand your users.

When it comes to understanding problems we are solving, we need to understand who we are solutioning for. There are a few tools we can use to help us understand the who behind a problem, which will ultimately help us understand the why too. To achieve this, we use actors and personas.

A trap one can easily fall into is using actors or personas interchangeably, however, they serve different purposes.


An actor in a film plays a role and performs actions that affect the story. In the same way an actor within the world of product development has a role and engages with a system or process – ultimately effecting change. An actor might be a user or even a system. As an example, an actor might be a representative of a customer on an e-commerce platform, who browses products and completes a checkout process.

An actor can be defined as an initiator of an action or the recipient of an outcome.

To understand the problem we are solving for, we need to understand the current or as-is flow of the product that users or systems interact with. These interactions can be defined as a use case. A use case diagram can be used to visualise the flow of a system and the necessary actors involved.

Illustrated below is an example of all relevant actors involved in a standard checkout process. Some of the actors are involved in a single use case shared between them, whereas others have use cases that only apply their unique action.

While the details of an actor are high level, a persona offers more granular details, such as demographics and psychographics. Both personas and actors are effective ways to help us place ourselves in the users’ shoes to understand their mindset, frustrations and goals.


When it comes to product design and development, the user is always at the heart of the solution. While we need to cater for business needs, it is important to ensure our users’ needs are met too, as they will determine the overall adoption of the solution.

The only way we can achieve this is to know the target audience and understand their goals, pain points, motivators, and characteristics in more detail. This is where personas come in.

A persona is a fictional user with goals, friction points and characteristics created to represent user groups that will interact with a product. To make a persona effective for its intended purpose, context-specific details are included to tie user behaviour patterns back to the problem space one is providing a solution for. Personas also help to prioritise certain features according to existing user needs.

Personas stem directly from customer research and should not be created from a place of assumption or bias. As research is conducted into one’s user base, themes often emerge in the user’s mindset and behaviour. These themes can then be broken down into user patterns and user mindsets, which will help inform the creation of personas. While fictional attributes may be added at times to give more substance to the persona and make it more relatable, all elements are still derived from the real data captured during customer research.

Solve real problems

The empathy generated through these tools creates a shared understanding of customers and systems. This understanding is imperative, as a team needs to know what problems they are solving, and for whom. We now have a unified front where tech, business and user representatives can work together, embedded in a team of problem solvers, not siloed with isolated views of the problem space.

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