I like the idea of constructing personas as a way to create empathy with a particular group of users, especially a group of users that might not share a background or community interests with the design team.
I was listening to a podcast about the influences of a team’s diversity (or lack thereof) on the development of an experience that may not be part its background. The hosts were claiming that there was no way for designers who are not of a certain background – be it ethnicity, gender, culture, socio-economic level, etc. – to design effectively for those who are. While I agree that one person may never fully understand another person’s perspective, being that they didn’t grow up with the same set of restrictions, expectations, and values, I do not believe it is an impossible task to meet users in a way-station between their worldview and the product the designer intends for them.
Personas seem to be a way for designers to step outside of their comfort zone, and conducting user research will help them create a plateau onto which the average person in the demographic can step to explore their product. The product will, no doubt, be colored and shaped by the design team’s personal influences, but the things that are important to a user will need to be addressed in order for the product to be successful.
As an example, if a woman were interested in an app to track her period, a design team composed only of men would seem to be a bad idea for development. If, however, the team had previously successful calendar/journalling apps, or something of the kind, and they thought this would be a valuable service to a lesser-considered portion of their demographic, the team could make a concerted effort to provide the things that a woman might desire in such an app, regardless of their gender. I think high amounts of user research and the personas constructed from this research might be a way to reach that goal.
//* side note:
Oddly, I don’t remember them mentioning age as a metric by which to measure the diversity of the group. I’m sure there are a great number of UX designers creating personas for a demographic that is well outside of their age-range (in one direction or another). This is a gap that should be almost as difficult to bridge as a gender (for example) gap.