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Personas and Umwelt

I was recently working on a platform redesign project for a client with a broad customer base. Their product and service offering is something that appeals to people with diverse demographics and technographics across Canada. As a part of our strategy, we created three target personas to help us understand how our client’s most valuable customers act online and how they perceive their own customer journey both online and offline.

Creating personas is something that I find interesting and rewarding — combining third party research and data with primary interview subjects and intuition is a delicate balance. On one hand, you want your personas’ value to be obvious and grounded in fact. On the other hand, you want to create a compelling narrative that doesn’t slip into stereotype and that is nuanced enough to be real.

But something tricky happens when you try to conceive of multiple personas interacting with the same interface on their respective journeys. Meeting needs and anticipating behaviour in triplicate can become a juggling act and designing an emotional interface can be even more difficult. How do you separate who you’re communicating with and when?

What is umwelt?

I stumbled across the concept of umwelt while reading on my holiday. Isn’t that always the way? You’re trying to escape into a book that has absolutely nothing to do with your daily life and instead you accidentally find a new way to frame a difficult task you’ve left behind. In my case, it was while reading John Vaillant’s book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival that I first read about a century-old theory developed by Estonian physiologist Jakob von Uexküll.


Von Uexküll uses the German word umwelt to describe the unique perceptual world of different living beings. Vaillant borrows the concept to examine how tigers and humans interact in some of Eastern Russia’s most remote communities. Both the tiger and the human occupy the same umgebung, or objective world. But inside of that physical space, the two species notice and pay attention to different things or signs that are vital to their survival. Their subjective realities are completely different and as such, they may respond to the same stimuli differently. What is important or significant to the tiger may not even be perceptible to the human.

There is a long, established history between the two species and rules for interacting with each other and respecting each other’s needs and power. Vaillant’s book looks at what happens when that understanding disappears between them. But I digress.

What does this have to do with personas and emotional interface design?

As soon as I read about the idea I thought about how I might apply it to the project I was working on – could it apply somehow to how we use personas?


I started by thinking about how different personas might perceive the same place, or umgebung in the context of a digital environment.

One person might scan a page to find the Store Locator or a phone number. Another person might be in the same space to check in with their community to see what they think about a new product. The functionality available to each user is the same, but what they sense, need and anticipate is what makes them different.

I can imagine, once defined, trying to map the umwelts of different personas to specific pages or use cases. Maybe by creating screen-specific heat maps that correspond to different personas’ awareness levels, needs and emotional resonance, we can further avoid designing all things for all people. Instead, we can use the umwelt concept to examine the primary needs of each persona in specific states and focus on those.

For interface designers, this kind of metaphor might be too vague to be useful. I’m not suggesting that I’ve discovered something revolutionary or that it’s fully fleshed out as a tool. It’s just that, particularly for someone like myself, in a strategic role without a lot of boxes and arrows – I like the concept as a lens. Who are these people in relation to the interface? Where do they overlap? How do they intersect? Can we meet the needs and emotional expectations of some of these people in the same way?

The difficulty still remains defining the right personas and doing so in a valid and believable way. Because really, how do you begin to understand someone else’s umwelt, especially if it is significantly different than your own?

That, as they say, is another story.

Kyra Aylsworth More posts by Kyra Aylsworth