Thinking More About Using Personas/Personae In Developing Theories of Change

I have previously advocated, here (and here), for taking a ‘persona’ or character-based approach to fleshing out a theory of change. This is a way of involving a variety of stakeholders (especially those closer to the ground, such as intended beneficiaries and street-level implementer’s) in discussions about program and theory of change development — even when they are not physically at the table, which is not always possible (though encouraged, of course).

This week, I had a new chance to put some of these ideas into action. A few lessons learned for future efforts:

  • This activity worked well in small groups. However, it may be too much to ask groups to fully develop their own personae, especially given possible time limits within the confines of a workshop.
    • It may be better to have some partially developed characters in mind (for example, that represent differing initial levels of the key outcomes of interest and variation on some of the hypothesized sub-groups of interest (explanatory variables). Groups can then take a shorter amount of time to elaborate — rather than develop — these dossiers and give a name to each of their creations (Mary, Bob, Fatima, etc). Alternatively, developing dossiers (and therefore articulating sub-groups of interest) could be a separate, opening activity.
  • Introducing any language about “role-playing” can lead to only one person in a group assuming the role of a given character and the group sort of playing ’20 Questions’ to that character, rather than everyone trying to consider and take on the thoughts, intentions, and decisions and steps a given character might take, confronted with a given intervention (as either a targeted beneficiary or an implementer). The idea is to get the team thinking about the potential barriers and enablers at multiple levels of influence (i.e. assumptions) that may be encountered on the path towards the outcomes of interest.
  • Speaking in “I” statements is helpful in helping people try to think like the different adopted personae. I really had to nag people on this in the beginning but I think it was ultimately useful to get people speaking in this way. In relation to this, there may be important lessons from cognitive interviewing (how-to here) practice, to get activity participants to think out loud about the chain of small decisions and actions they would need to take when confronted with a new program or policy.
  • I noted a marked tendency this time around for men to only speak for male characters and for women, the same! There may be some creative ways to discourage this (thoughts welcome).
  • There are two potential key goals of an activity like this, which should be kept distinct (and be articulated early and often during the activity) even though they are iterative.
    • A first relates to Elaborating Activities, that is, to develop a robust intervention, so that nuance to activities and ‘wrap-around’ support structures (to use Cartwright and Hardie’s terminology) and activities can be developed. This can lead to a laundry or wish list of activities — so if is at the brainstorming stage, this can be articulated as an ‘ok’ outcome or even an explicit goal.
    • A second relates to Explicating and Elaborating assumptions, filling in all the intermediate steps between the big milestones in a results chain. This second goal is bound up in the process of moving from a log-frame to a robust theory of change (as noted by John Mayne at the Canadian Evaluation Society, this is adding all the arrows to the results chain boxes) as well as a more robust and nuanced set of indicators to measure progress towards goals and uncover mechanisms leading to change.
      • A nice wrap-up activity here could include sorting out the assumptions for which evidence is already available and which should be collected and measured as part of research work.
  • It remains an important activity to elaborate and verbally illustrate how X character’s routines and surroundings will be different if the end-goals are reached — given that social, environmental, infrastructural and institutional change is often the goal of ‘development’ efforts. This last step of actually describing how settings and institutions may operate differently, and the implications on quotidian life, is an important wrap-up and time needs to be made for it.

Of course, the use of personae (or an agent-based perspective) is only one part of elaborating a theory of change. But it can play an important role in guiding the other efforts to provide nuance and evidence, including highlighting where to fill in ideas from theoretical and empirical work to end up with a robust theory of change that can guide the development of research methods and instruments.

Would be great to hear further ideas and inputs!

theories of change, stakeholders, imagined beneficiaries, & stealing from product design. that is, meet ‘mary.’

this post is also available, lightly edited, here.

i have been thinking a lot about ‘theories of change’ this week (just did some presenting on them here!). actually, i have been thinking more about ‘conceptual models,’ which was the term by which i was first introduced to the general idea (via vic strecher in conceptual models 101) and the term i still prefer because it implies more uncertainty and greater scope for tinkering than does ‘theory.’ (i accept that ‘theory of change‘ has been branded and that i have to live with it but i don’t have to like it. when people start calling them “tocks,” it’ll be a really, really bad day. i can deal with the acronym “ToCs” but please, world, don’t pronounce it “tocks” or switch to writing “tox” or something else dreadful.)

regardless of the term, the approach of thinking seriously about how behavioral, social and economic change will happen is really important — and often overlooked during the planning stages of both projects/programs/policies and evaluations. (too often, the intricacies of how change actually happened (or didn’t) are left to academic speculation in the discussion section of an evaluation paper — a certainly not informed by talking systematically to those people who were intended to benefit from the program).

i think there is growing recognition that building a theory of change is something that should happen, at least in part, backwards (among other places where this is discussed is in ‘evidence-based policy‘ with the idea of a ‘pre-mortem‘ and ‘thinking step-by-step and thinking backwards‘). that is, you start with the end goal (usually some variant of ‘peace,’ ‘satisfaction,’ ‘wellbeing,’ ‘capabilities,’* etc) in mind and work backwards as to how you are going to get there. actually, it’s a bit more like the transcontinental railroad, where you start from both ends (where you are and where you want to get) and build backwards and forwards until the ideas meet in the middle and you have a sense of what needs to be done and what assumptions underlie one step translating to the next.

in teaching us about not only conceptual models but grant writing, vic used the analogy of an island. the island was where you wanted to get — the state of the world as things would be once your intervention was rolled-out, fully operational and lasting change affected. it wasn’t enough to just say that people would have more money or would be healthier. you had to describe how the state of the world would look, feel, and operate. how would someone’s day look in the new state of the world? what would be different about the way they undertook their daily activities, or indeed what their daily activities would be? then, once you had the new state of the world/island in mind, you could make sense of where you were currently (through one of those ex anteneeds assessment‘ things i so rarely hear about in planning development projects or building theories of change) and what needed to be done to build a bridge from where you are to the island.

some of this work in understanding where people are and where ‘they,’ and therefore, ‘we’ want to get is meant to be generated through the nebulous terms “stakeholder engagement” and “formative work.” i think we discuss much less how formative engagement and stakeholder work (probably not a great sign of specificity that all the words can be mixed up so easily) actually translates into a robust theory of change. in this regard, i have learnt quite a bit from product and engineering books like the inmates are running the asylum. these are books about product and service design and the ‘user experience’ — far-out concepts we probably (almost certainly) don’t spend enough time thinking about in ‘development’ and something that would probably really benefit our theories of change in detailed and ‘best-fitting’ a particular situation… not to mention, you know, benefit the beneficiaries.

one of the tools i like best is what is, effectively, imaginary prospective users — in cooper‘s terminology, ‘personas.’ here’s the idea, as i see it translating to development and theories of change. we know stakeholders are important but they cannot (realistically or effectively) all be in the same room, at the same table, at the same time. nor can they all be called up each time we make a small tweak in program design or the underlying assumptions. and, it is likely the intended beneficiaries that are hardest to call up and the most likely not to be at the table. but we can use personas to bring them to the table, so that what happened in ‘the field’ most certainly does not stay there.

let’s say that for a given project and evaluation, widowed women are a key sub-group of interest.

forget widowed women.

start thinking about “mary.”

mary is a widowed woman.

her husband had been a carpenter and died of c cause. she lives in x place while her n children live in z other places and provide her with s amount of support. mary can be a composite of widowed women you did meet in the field during deep, household level needs assessment and formative in-depth interviews with intended beneficiaries. that’s how you might have a picture of mary and know that she lives in h type of house, with e regular access to electricity and have g goats and l other livestock. it’s how you know she’s illiterate and has a mobile phone onto which she never adds credit. it’s how you know what time she wakes up, what her morning chores are, who she talks to, when and whether she has time to go to the market, how she gets her information, what aspects of her environment will enable change and which will hinder it, and so on.

so, all potential beneficiaries can’t be at the table but personas of key subgroups and heterogeneities of interest can be. if everyone in the room for the design (intervention and evaluation) process is introduced to the personas, then they can speak up for mary. she still gets a voice and the ability to ask, ‘what’s in all this for me?’ will she be able to deal with an extra goat if she gets one as part of a livestock program? does she have the means of transport to collect cash as part of a transfer program? is her neighborhood safe for walking so she can follow up on the health information you provide? is mary going to give a hoot about the sanitation information you provide her?

mary’s obstacles need to be dealt with in your program design and the places where mary might have trouble engaging with the program need to be put into your theory of change and monitored as part of your M&E (& e) plan. will mary help you think everything? no, of course not — she’s good but she’s not that good. but it’ll probably be nearer to something that can actually work (and don’t forget that street-level workers, other implementers and high-level stakeholders should have personas too!).

please invite mary to the table when you’re designing your intervention and constructing your theory of change. it doesn’t replace the need for actual monitoring and actually asking for beneficiary, implementer and stakeholder feedback.

but have mary describe to you how her life will be different (better!) with your program in place, how the actual structure of her day and decision-making have changed now that she’s on the aforementioned goal island. you’ll be a little closer to making it so.

this post is massively indebted to danielle giuseffi, who introduced me to some of the books above and with whom i have discussed building models more than anyone else! still one of my favorite business-partners-in-waiting, d-funk, and i still like our behavioral bridge.

*yes, i know that ‘capabilities’ were initially from amartya sen and that i should have linked to this. but for planning approaches, i find the 10 laid out by nussbaum more accessible.