Personas That Govern

Personas That Govern
Photo by Tom Rumble / Unsplash

Chuck Schumer has imaginary friends

This pictured text is from a profile from 2007 in The New Yorker by Jeffrey Goldberg. Let’s just quote the thing:

Schumer says that he is accompanied everywhere he goes by two imaginary middle-class friends, who advise him on all manner of middle-class concerns. Their names, until recently, were Joe and Eileen O’Reilly. “For the book’s sake, we wanted them to be more national,” Schumer said, “so they became the Baileys.” The Baileys live in Massapequa, in Nassau County, a town that is invariably known on Long Island as “Matzoh-Pizza.” The Baileys are both forty-five years old: Joe works for an insurance company, Eileen is a part-time employee at a doctor’s office. They worry about terrorism, and about values, and they are patriots — “Joe takes off his cap and sings along with the national anthem before the occasional Islanders game,” Schumer wrote. He elaborated, “They’re not ideologues. They’re worried about property taxes. It’s the tax they hate. And that’s what Democrats don’t get.” He has also drafted the Baileys in defending the C.I.A.’s human-intelligence program: “Had Joe and Eileen been in the room after the hum-int screwup, they would not have indulged in the blame game, gutted the human-intelligence program, or weakened America.”

The Baileys, Schumer said, sometimes dine out — not often, because of the cost — and they like Chinese. Which raised the question: What would the Baileys eat, if they were here at Hunan Dynasty? “The more conventional stuff,” Schumer said, “but they’re with it.”

They’re with it?

“I mean, they’re not not with it.” Schumer looked at a plate of steamed chicken and vegetables, and said, “They wouldn’t order that. They would order kung pao chicken.”

It was suggested to Schumer that he is a little bit weird. He acknowledged this to be true. “They’re real for me,” he said. “I love the Baileys.”

As swing voters, Schumer said, “the Baileys were very anti-Hillary when she ran in 2000, but they voted for her in 2006.” He went on, “They like Rudy. It depends on how he plays it. If Rudy continues to adhere to the right-wing Republican line, just cutting taxes for the wealthy, he won’t get their vote.”

It turns out, Schumer said, as he ate an almond cookie, that there are some actual Baileys in Massapequa, and he once met a couple of them. Mrs. Bailey was a kind woman, “very nice, a nice lady,” but the actual Mr. Bailey was a Republican. Even worse, Schumer said, he had a goatee. “Joe Bailey would never have a goatee.”

You might think, well, that was 2007, the world has changed since then, and you would be … entirely wrong. In 2017, The New Yorker again inquired with Schumer as to the Baileys, and he informed them:

This past November, the Baileys split their votes. Joe went with Trump, Eileen with Hillary. As for their kids, one was not yet eighteen, one voted for Clinton, and the third sat out the election. A few weeks ago, Schumer informed me that Eileen was feeling more confident about her vote, “not that she ever liked Hillary that much.” Joe, meanwhile, was having second thoughts.

“He’s getting a little queasiness in his stomach,” Schumer said. “It just seems like amateur hour, and Joe’s not an amateur. He’s very good at what he does. He was angry at the liberal way, but he didn’t think Trump would be like this.”

We are informed that “Schumer dreamed up the Baileys during his first campaign for the Senate, in 1998… These were the types of people he’d grown up with in Flatbush, and whose houses his father sprayed for pests. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that the Baileys were the key to the race, and the more vivid the family became. They acquired parents — Eileen’s father had prostate cancer — and neighbors, some of whom had recently lost their jobs when the work was moved overseas.”

So, this man has been walking around for 23 years with a fictional couple that reminds him of his father’s customers in his head, and bases his policy positions and campaign messaging on what he imagines they think. He “knows” all sorts of things, including their position on the CIA’s human intelligence program, which naturally, this not real couple from Massapequa with not real sick parents and not real grown children and a not real penchant for kung pao chicken, spend a lot of time not really thinking about.

I’m not sure I can express this any more clearly than Erika Hall did — “If your personas aren’t based on research, they’re just you.”

Let’s pretend for a moment, despite the written record, that the Baileys*, were based on some baseline voter research he did back in 1998. Let’s even pretend he has occasionally updated his understanding of these same people every 10 years or so. What, do you suppose, are the odds, that the body of real voters out of which these colorful composites were drawn were ever asked a single question about CIA hum-int? And if they weren’t asked about it, how would Chuck go about extrapolating from their Chinese food takeout orders their position on hum-int failures?

Chuck’s imaginary friends are emblematic of what happens when you think you can build a persona out of… gauzy memories, media stereotypes, and centrist fantasies, I guess. They are, no more and no less, works of fiction. They are imaginary. Fantastical. Possibly even delusional. Entirely self-serving. And utterly useless.

I’ve seen a lot of bullshit personas in my day, but this may be the worst of them. And they are riding around inside the apparently quite addled head of the new Senate Majority Leader, so that’s encouraging.

The thing about personas

Like a lot of standard research deliverables, I am ambivalent about personas. The chasm between useful and useless personas is steep and wide, but so flat that from a certain angle, they look like one continuous plane. So it’s important to know the difference.

To create a good persona you need to:

  • Ask short questions with long answers of a lot of people
  • Focus your questions on the problem you’re trying to solve right now
  • Create more than one persona
  • Know that people might switch personas — they are contextual, and often roles- or task-based
  • Revisit your personas with fresh research as you change or add objectives/problems to solve
  • Emphasize experiences (goals, behavior, emotions and reasoning) over demographics (age and gender, for example)

Our friend Chuck didn’t do any of that, and neither do a lot of designers and marketers.

If, by some chance, you’re interested in what makes a good persona, this post by Indi Young is a great primer on how to write personas, and how to make them resonant to the team but not trade in lazy or damaging stereotypes, or cause contempt instead of respect.

One thing that stood out to me most about Chuck’s personas is that he thinks they can be applied to any question before him — imaginary magic eight balls he can shake before every meeting so he knows what to do. And that, Indi Young writes, is a bad use of a persona:

“Personas don’t work as generalizations; they need specific context. This is because personas aren’t meant for overall uses — they’re meant for ideation and designing solutions within a specific scope that your organization is concerned with this month or quarter.”

Personas must be built on research. They must be updated regularly. They must be contextualized to their objectives and not overstretched to unrelated issues. Then they might stand a chance of being useful.

* Remember they were previously the O’Reilly’s, until he decided that was somehow not “national” — yet he insists they could just as easily be the “Ramirezes or the Kims or the Salims” but lol no they obviously could not since O’Reilly was clearly too ethnic my god what decade do the Baileys live in because that might explain a lot about our friend Chuck.