Persona series: drinking our own champagne

by Alex Fedorov

Listening to and understanding customers is one of the most overlooked steps in the product design process. By creating personas for your target customers, you can synthesize feedback and behavior to help better address a specific customer’s needs. Creating personas isn’t a one-off activity, and personas aren’t static artifacts. They’re created to continuously evolve and not only feed your product roadmap, but impact departments across your company. In our four part series on personas we’ll explore common missteps, insights into our own persona development, and tips for you to create your own.

Here at Fresh Tilled Soil, we commonly help our clients develop and maintain personas of the people they are building websites and products for. But, true to the familiar saying, “the cobbler’s children have no shoes,” we sometimes fall behind in understanding the evolving landscape of who our own customers and partners are.

Recently, we embarked on an internal design sprint to re-think the growing community of product professionals in Boston and beyond. One of the most exciting outputs from that exercise was a comprehensive set of five key personas.

Now it’s one thing to think through personas in the safety of our own office, but it’s an entirely different story getting out into the community and validating them. But like anything in the UX and product world, any good hunch or assumption needs to be validated. Our opportunity to do so arose on June 22nd when Boston-area product companies Wistia and AppCues hosted the second annual Drunk User Testing event.

The gist of Drunk User Testing is that about a dozen area companies come together to sponsor a three hour event, this year at Hatch Fenway, where industry professionals can snack, sip libations, and help user test web and native applications that the sponsors have put together. This year we decided that instead of testing a current client project, we would validate the personas we developed during our internal sprint.

The process we followed was based on the five personas that represent key players and decision makers in the digital product industry:

Polly – Product Owner/Manager
Vince – CTO/VP of Engineering
Ulysses – UX/Design Lead
Islanda – CIO/Innovation Lead
Liz – Product Marketing/Sales

We made a few dozen worksheets of each persona type that had a checklist of key activities on one side and a series of checklists tied to what we call an empathy map on the other. Once someone at the event was able to self-identify as a particular persona, we had them fill out the sheet, adding in anything we forgot in any of the categories.

Generally, we got some great validation on the personas, but we definitely gained a lot of insights around key activities and pain points that weren’t on our radar. The list below breaks down the key characteristics and learnings for each persona.

Just a quick note on these personas and our methods for defining and validating them: they are by no means complete or fully developed. Our initial efforts to segment and understand the following five personas are still very high level and are largely task-based at the moment. We are continuing to identify and develop more attributes about each persona type as we keep exploring and refining – using a system that we’ll describe in an upcoming persona series post.

Characteristics, Assumptions and Findings

Product Owner Persona Polly
Product Owner/Manager

Polly is a Persona type that we spend a lot of time interfacing with in our daily work with clients. She is where the buck stops in terms of knowing where the product is, where it’s been, and where it’s going.

Top user stories:

  • Balancing and managing priorities with the product team
  • Developing and maintaining a product roadmap
  • Trend & market analysis, understanding the industry

What we missed:

  • Creating user stories and writing development specs
  • Wireframing & designing flows and screens
  • Monitoring usability and user experience feedback

Empathy map insights:
Polly sees gaps in her product, hears about usability and team issues, says “let’s get this done,” thinks about solving problems for customers at the same time as keeping customers happy, and feels pulled in many directions.

Surprises and takeaways:
Though the Pollys of the world are under a lot of pressure and are juggling many responsibilities to keep multiple stakeholders happy, they feel excitement and gratitude for their organization’s wins.


CTO PersonaVince
CTO/VP of Engineering

Top user stories:

  • Preparing and managing requirements and specs for engineers
  • Measuring velocity of the development process
  • Scaling the product and/or the team

What we missed:

  • Prioritizing and managing features from a growing backlog
  • Dealing with scheduling pressures from other teams
  • Incomplete product roadmaps and metrics
  • Avoiding technical debt or inefficient processes

Empathy map insights:
Vince is seeing an overworked engineering team with an incomplete roadmap, is hearing some concerns about scheduling and timing, is asking what the priorities are, is concerned with the team’s efficiency and the scale of the codebase while feeling a bit of pressure.

Surprises and takeaways:
The Vinces are very focused on optimizing their team and making sure they’ve allocated the right amount of people and time to complete items in the backlog. They care a great deal about scale, infrastructure and making sure the right processes are put in place to keep things running efficiently. Their pressures are largely related to expectations around timing and occasionally budget from other groups.


UX PersonaUlysses
UX/Design Lead

Top user stories:

  • Iterating on designs
  • Design research, discovery and experience mapping
  • Creating assets for development team

What we missed:

  • Sketching
  • Wireframing
  • Conducting usability tests

Empathy map insights:
Ulysses is seeing a product that could use some improvement, is hearing feedback from internal stakeholders and customers, is advocating for the best possible product while thinking about managing expectations, and feeling some frustration around wanting more time and budget to research and validate decisions.

Surprises and takeaways:
Though it’s clear that more companies are embracing design as a differentiator, from the feedback we received, UX professionals are still lacking the adequate time and budget to properly research, and validate and test designs and interactions. They want to be heard and want to ensure the designs and flows they’re crafting are making it into production.


CIO PersonaIslanda
CIO/Innovation Lead

Top user stories:

  • Experimentation, prototyping and making
  • Identifying opportunities for the direction of the product
  • Conducting user research and testing

What we missed:

  • Stakeholders want improvements and “change” but direction seems vague
  • The need for highly detailed discovery before experimenting on solutions
  • Seeing and feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of the possible directions out there

Empathy map insights:
Islanda is seeing what competitors and others are doing in the innovation space, hearing that people are ready for improvement, talking to domain experts, thinking about how to improve the overall experience, while feeling some concern about resources and innovating while also making the right decisions.

Surprises and takeaways:
The Islandas know that internal and external stakeholders are ready for positive change if it represents an improvement, but are struggling to define exactly what that means without over-promising or getting too carried away with endless possibilities. They want to continue pushing the product forward, but want to do so in an informed and measured way assisted by the voice of the customer.


Product Marketing PersonaLiz
Product Marketing/Sales

Top user stories:

  • Growing new and existing markets
  • Execution and focus on specific customer targets
  • Building strategic sales and marketing partnerships

What we missed:

  • Seeing gaps or weaknesses in the product affect their efforts
  • Hearing from prospects and customers that they want different/additional features or usability improvements
  • Feeling the need to align more closely to the product team to inform change

Empathy map insights:
Liz is seeing her brand being expressed in the marketplace while keeping a close watch on key metrics, hearing about KPIs and deadlines, talking about the priority of initiatives based on customer feedback, wondering how her product stands out in the market, while feeling like she’s juggling and balancing competing priorities.

Surprises and takeaways:
The Lizes are a motivated group of people who want to evangelize their product and win more customers, but are hearing that there are sometimes usability issues or weaknesses in their product that should be fixed. They are looking for specific goals and want to make sure the insights they’re hearing from partners, prospects and customers are making their way to the product and development teams so the end result is a better product and an easier sale.


While all of this information is great to have, it means nothing if we don’t continue to refine our personas and act on these insights. In our post next Monday, we’ll be exploring how we can connect, communicate, and partner better with our clients who map to these personas now that we understand more of their day-to-day challenges. We hope to continue sharing our activities and insights as we learn more.

Have your own personas? Maybe you’re about to make your own? Make sure to continue to talk to customers, as personas are meant to continuously evolve alongside your business and customers’ needs.

About Alex Fedorov

Alex is a strategic thinker with a gift for information architecture, known for his ability to wireframe complex workflows and multiple states of applications at...