Personas have become the standard technique in the customer discovery phase of the development of a product. From large organizations to startups and teams within those, we’re all using them. Yet, a simple conversation with people we support and a Google search on the topic gave us some evidence of disappointment around the tool.
In the myriad of offline chats that we have with product owners, managers and developers, we get asked whether personas are useful. And we get a sense that they’ve become just ‘another thing’ that has to exist within an organization, something that people are not really getting value from.
Personas are a great tool to help shift the focus of decision making from what’s getting developed, to the user’s needs/goals. They are also extremely useful as a common reference point for the team to communicate around, as they help create a shared understanding of users and alignment around who we’re solving the problem for.
If you work in a large organization, you probably have a marketing or customer research department that builds personas for you. The first impulse will be – ‘nice, we have a persona already!’ My question would be – are you sure you have a persona that provides insights on what you actually need to know?
Too often we look at the personas that are handed to us and we really don’t, or can’t do that much with them.
Are we making the most out of personas?
As mentioned above, personas developed by organizations are traditionally left to the marketing department so, they are made around who the buyer is, not who the user is, and that can represent a big difference.
The risk when using the Marketing Persona is that these personas describe users that are effectively non-descript, and so you may not be able to make useful decisions based on them.
Before you start using them, ask yourself, ‘are these personas telling me what I really need to know about the people I’m designing my solution for?’ It’s okay if your answer is, ‘not really, I need more information’.
You need Personas that are built around what you’re trying to understand.
You may be thinking – well, I know some of our customers, I can create a persona based on what I know about them.
This is a Proto-Persona and it’s also a valuable starting point. They are particularly valuable for surfacing a team’s assumptions about the user, so you should build these with your team and stakeholders if time and/or money are a constraint.
You do need to keep in mind that a Proto-Persona, is based on what you know about the user. So they are more than likely full of assumptions that need to be validated and are no substitute for user research.
Marketing Personas or Proto-Personas give us some data points and assumptions, and that’s good, it’s a starting point. You’re not staring at a blank canvas and you should have some ideas about what you may want to do next.
Preparing to do it right…
If you want a persona that really gets to the core of your users needs, then base it on user research.
We need to get out of the building!
Now is the time to use the Proto-Personas. Those are your assumptions about which groups of people you’ll need to build your research around. It’s time to go and learn more about them.
How to develop Design Personas
You’ll need to start with either observations or interviews (it really depends on what you‘re building and what you’re allowed to do).
Tip: For the interviews, we find that pairing is the most effective way of doing it, as one person is focused on asking the questions, the other can focus more on behaviors, as these can provide invaluable insights.
Keep the questions neutral and open. Remember that you don’t want to be right—you want to learn more. What are you looking for in the interview? The way we approach personas is to search for jobs, pains and gains.
We really like the concept of jobs-to-be-done that Clayton Christensen popularized. You can watch him explaining the concept in the video below.
Understand what are the pains, these are risks, obstacles and things that the customer wants to avoid whilst trying to get a job done.
Understand what are the gains what are the things the customer hopes to achieve or the benefits that they seek. As a rule of thumb, keep interviewing people until you have found 10–20 people who are experiencing the same problem. Then you must decide if it’s worth solving for.
Now that you have this information, before thinking about personas, ask yourself… what am I trying to accomplish. If you’re really trying to understand your user, you know the advice. Get out of the building and interact with real users.
To help you out in your endeavours, download our personas template. If you want to go through a structured process where you’ll learn how to do user research and develop personas, check our VFQ Product Management courses.
You can also download the editable template by clicking the link here: