Persona series: living personas

by Evan Ryan

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.

In late 2008, the early days of my first business, I spent way too much time pretending to understand what my customers wanted. I was sure I knew what they needed, when they needed it, and in what form they wanted it. Back then we were creating a service to bring unique experiences and keynote speakers into the corporate environment to inspire employees and improve quality of life. I co-developed the concept to solve a problem in my own life, and then validated it with people like me. I assumed if I wanted it then the rest of my target audience would as well, and everything else would fall into place.

Sounds familiar, right?

We were right about one thing. Employees loved it. Who wouldn’t enjoy a TED style lunch-and-learn, or mid-week cooking class, or team building kayak trip?! The problem, however, was that we took too long to understand our other key stakeholders, like the HR reps and operational teams responsible for actually buying our product. In other words, our customer! This amounted to misaligned marketing, a product that neglected to serve a key role (the administrator), and consequently a slow and choppy start. From the outside we looked like a gangly newborn giraffe trying to run before figuring out how to use its legs. Since then I’ve seen countless others make the same mistake, regardless of how experienced or well intentioned they might be. For me it was a painful lesson that resulted in an uncomfortable amount of wasted time and money. On the flip side though, it left a scar that has served as a constant reminder about the importance of empathy in design.

Know thy customer

One critical component of empathetic design is to develop personas. A “persona,” as defined by the design firm Cooper, is “a representation of a user, typically based off user research and incorporating user goals, needs, and interests.” Personas embody the voice of the customer and help us evaluate and understand what they need. They are valuable because without the ability to understand the world from from our customers’ perspective, we’re just grappling around in the dark designing for fictional scenarios in a fantastical world born of our own biased imaginations. As a product and design strategist, I work with personas just about every day. In fact, I can’t really do my job without them.

In a recent example, a client approached us to help solve a problem with weak sales and plateauing conversions. Naturally they attributed this to a product design problem, which is how they ended up on our doorstep. “Help us fix our user experience, and we’ll start growing again!” With just a bit of digging we realized the real problem was that they didn’t truly know their audience. They had identified one customer type and treated each sales opportunity the same. However, in a few short weeks we helped them uncover an additional seven persona types. Their target audience was a lot more nuanced and varied than they realized, and their sales reps were failing to notice the subtle differences and neglecting to hit the right talking points. Once we helped them incorporate this new understanding, the sales and customer service processes improved significantly.

The key to persona work is to not just know who your customers are, it is to really know them. Meet them, talk to them, and make friends with them. Understand what they’re thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing, saying, doing, and more. Find a way to put yourself in their shoes and see the problem from their point of view. Then take that understanding and incorporate it into visual representations of each user type. Chances are if you’re a product person or designer, or at least familiar with Human Centered Design or Steve Blank’s Customer Discovery model, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

Often personas are created by a product or marketing team with names, pictures, and attributes all arranged in a nice visual layout and thrown into a slide deck for future reference. The issue is that after personas are developed, all too often they wind up stuck away in a dusty corner of our servers and Dropbox accounts, rarely to resurface again. We assume that once they’ve been developed we know everything we need to know about our audience. In my opinion, this is a huge problem. Most business and product leaders have made this mistake at one point or another, and as mentioned above, I’m certainly no exception.

Invite them to the table

Which brings me to my next point, and the real purpose of this post. Once personas are created, they need to be nurtured and incorporated into your daily operations. In other words, personas are living, breathing entities. I don’t mean they’ll miraculously come alive before your eyes like Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, but I do mean they should grow and morph in unison with the constantly shifting ecosystems and circumstances that surround them. They should be treated with more care and respect than most give them.

As we toil away in an effort to make our products and services more valuable to our customers, we change things. We improve our messaging, uncover new channels, react to fluctuating industry dynamics, add features and functionality, seek out new opportunities, and on, and on. Except when we change things, we must remember that the reason we’re changing them is to create more value for our users and customers. If we fall out of touch with those very people, we lose the ability to effectively serve them. Instead, each time we receive new information about our audience, we need to update the corresponding personas to capture and reflect our evolved understanding. This way the personas can be revisited at every turn or juncture in the progression of the product or business, and give you confidence that your decisions are grounded in a true and current understanding of the goals, needs, and desires of your customer base. This is what I mean by “living personas.”

So in summary, don’t ignore your personas! If you do you’ll lose touch with your customers, force too much guesswork, and ultimately risk building the wrong things. Instead, give them more love and invite them to the table as contributing members of your team. A more consistent commitment here will help not only sharpen your decision-making process, but also keep your team on the cutting edge of value creation.

We recently kicked off an initiative to stay closer to our customers. By gathering information about our own personas continuously, we can always keep a pulse on our customers and feed that information to our team. Even small nuances between personas make a world of difference in our day-to-day interactions with our customers. Stay tuned for our next post on user personas, releasing August 8th. We’ll share our methodology and the insights we learned, arming you to build out your own persona strategy.

About Evan Ryan

​Evan is ​a seasoned ​product designer and ​entrepreneur with more than 10 years of experience founding and managing startups in a wide range of verticals....