Persona series: our customer journey

by Kelly Powell

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.

At Fresh Tilled Soil, we know what it takes to build a great product. One of our key roles is to help our clients feel secure in engaging with us at every step of the way. We also know that building and maintaining trust is the most essential ingredient to a successful partnership. From earliest conversations all the way to the end of the project, we’re building a foundation with our clients that will withstand the bumps that can occur during complex, high-risk design projects.

Stated simply, our clients’ largest risk is ambiguity. They have a sense that we’ll be able to uncover solutions together that they didn’t think about on their own. But they’re not always sure how it’s going to work or what to expect along the way.

This is a pretty scary place to start. Uncertainty can lead to all sorts of problems — misalignment of goals, lack of trust, mismanagement of the budget, and most frightening of all, building the wrong thing. To do our job effectively, we must move the needle from ambiguity to certainty.

So we asked ourselves, “How well are we doing in these two critical factors?”

  1. Helping our clients feel secure throughout the project life cycle.
  2. Creating a secure environment where we move from chaos and ambiguity to certainty and clarity.

To answer these important questions, we investigated our service protocol and procedures to ensure we’re doing the best job guiding our clients through the process of uncovering and creating successful solutions, and identifying areas and ways that we can improve.

Our Customers and Their Journeys

Using our own process and methodology, we identified and profiled key personas (in this case, our clients) and mapped their experiences against a particular journey (an end-to-end engagement with Fresh Tilled Soil).

Persona development and experience mapping are essential activities in achieving a holistic view of who you’re engaged with and how best to do so. Through these activities, we uncovered user goals, preferences, and emotions at every touchpoint along their journey with us. This allowed us to dig deeper into the people and their motivations, identify pain points and gaps, and ultimately improve our quality of service.

We’ve got the A team to undertake this challenge, a multi-disciplinary group that brings a range of client and project experience. Great team motivators, relationship and experience evangelists, client whisperers, and the two men who wrote the book on Design Sprints, among others. Best of the best.

As noted in a previous post in this blog series, our five personas represent our client base — key players and decision makers in the digital product industry:

  1. Polly – Product Owner/Manager
  2. Ulysses – UX/Design Lead
  3. Liz – Product Marketing/Sales
  4. Islanda – CIO/Innovation Lead
  5. Vince – CTO/VP of Engineering

We examined their roles, day-to-day activities, and goals. We used empathy mapping to brainstorm what they’re thinking, seeing, feeling, saying, hearing, and doing. We validated our assumptions through user testing. Then we mapped their experience along a project life cycle: Awareness, Inquiry, Needs Assessment, Scoping, Negotiation, Preparation, Kickoff, Project Strategy, Design, and Build, and finally Re-Engagement.

User journey example

Detail of the beginning of the customer service journey map for Polly, The Product Owner/Manager. From left to right, Polly’s journey starts in the Awareness phase at one of many entry points, and through a variety of channels both digital and physical. Click to enlarge.

Key Insights

Anticipate the negative, amplify the positive

This analysis has given us a detailed view of key customer touchpoints. We have uncovered and mapped insights into their specific goals and emotional states at discrete moments in time. We can now easily see the places where things tend to get bumpy, and why.

Going forward, our intention will be to anticipate the negative and amplify the positive. For example, when initially researching potential design firms, client emotions might include being excited — “I finally got the go-ahead with my initiative!” And run the gamut to more negative emotions — “I’ve never done this before, what if I fail?”

When we can anticipate clients’ concerns and fears, we can have helpful strategies and protocols at the ready. For example, a process diagram map that describes the steps and sequence of a product design project and lists out recommended activities and deliverables a client can expect. Visuals help to create alignment and shared understanding and go a long way in conveying the big picture view, helping to alleviate feelings of being unprepared and at risk.

Moments of truth

That moment in the relationship when you feel things are really gelling, the partnership is solidifying, alignment is forming. How did that happen? What were the micro-events that led to it? What can we do to always reach positive moments of truth?

Take scoping and negotiating, for example. We know we’re successful when we’ve listened really well, then connected the dots to provide a solution that the client needs. Explored options and clearly explained that we can provide value across a range of options and price points. Talked through risks and how we’ll handle difficult conversations if the need arises.

Even during the earliest stages of communication, we have an opportunity to demonstrate what it’s going to be like to work together. The process of agreeing on the right approach and confirming how we’ll work together signals how collaborative the engagement itself will be.

Aligning goals

A critical step in any project is to identify and align goals. We continually keep project goals, client business goals, user goals, and our own design goals in mind and in alignment throughout a project. Of particular importance in our analysis was mapping our clients’ goals along our engagement life cycle and compared them to ours. Uncovering the reality that sometimes our customers’ goals can be a lot different from ours, we can be more aware of our blinders and broaden the focus to more effectively communicate.

During project preparation and kickoff, our team has a solid checklist for setting the stage for a strong partnership. Aligning client and internal team members on scope, approach, and roles; confirming why we’re here and what we’re here for; setting up tools and scheduling meetings. Our clients, on the other hand, have their own set of concerns. New risks might be at hand — shifting business priorities, team members thrown in last minute or important allies suddenly taken off the project, a looming acquisition. We must remember to always listen and verify, even as our own preparations are taking a lot of our attention.

Flexing mindfully within the framework

Our momentum is propelling us along nicely. The project plan is solid, we’re hitting our milestones, and everyone’s getting along well. Then a new finding emerges — an erroneous assumption unearthed through user testing, or a new business goal exposed due to a competitor play — and we’ve got to shift our thinking and plan. And that’s OK.

The client’s goal is to have confidence that we’re building the right thing, even if the definition of “right” has now shifted. Our goal is to remain in control of the process, proceed with an open mind, have the necessary conversations with our clients, and not let unanticipated circumstances throw us all off the rails.

We now have visibility into moments along the journey where these shifts are likely to occur and can act accordingly to keep potential problems from becoming big complications. Our well-hewn processes and methodologies give us a framework to work within, and allow for speedy evaluation and fresh perspective. They also allow us to proceed confidently into new terrain, as they did at the outset of the project when so much was still to be discovered. We’ve flexed within the framework and gotten back on track with renewed momentum without feeling out of control.

Handoff Is Part of the Practice

Whether you’re talking about a relay running team passing the baton or a medical team transitioning a patient from one specialist to another, handoff is part of the practice.

It means having empathy for your partner and handing off at the right speed, to full pace, with accuracy, consistency, and perfect timing. An excellent handoff embodies the exemplary service that we strive to provide.

Our handoffs between stages, modes, and people are clearly defined with our clients so that we can get up to speed, hit our stride, and ride the momentum of high-functioning teams and happy clients.

Having gone through our persona development and experiencing mapping process, we now have a bird’s eye view of touchpoints and modes of operation as well as possible anxieties and frustrations, helping us anticipate problems and mitigate them before they hit.

We’re now in the process of layering in moments and devices where we can pump up our service delivery. Our goal is to enter the “white glove” service zone, with empathy, confidence, and good dose of warmth and humor. In next week’s post, we’ll discuss our persona tool and how to implement changes to better connect with your personas.

About Kelly Powell

With more than 20 years of experience overseeing and managing communication initiatives on both the creative and the client side, Kelly’s instinctive empathy makes her...