Managing Personas: The Persona Tool

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’re exploring common missteps, insights into our own persona development, and tips for you to create your own. In this, our fourth and final post, we share how we capture, track, and update personas in real-time at Fresh Tilled Soil.

In our first post in this persona series, we spoke about the value of creating personas, and more specifically the importance of maintaining and updating them at every turn or inflection point. Next we opened our kimono and outlined our latest round of persona development and testing at Fresh Tilled Soil. Then we created journey maps for each of our personas. So naturally, in this post I’m going to address how you might tactically put these suggestions into practice. When we realized that many of our clients didn’t have a process for managing personas beyond initial development, we set out to create a tool that would encourage a new pattern of incremental persona development.

Before going into more detail on the tool, I want to note that persona types can differ depending on the target audience. Most notably, personas are typically used for either marketing efforts or for designing products. In many cases this means two separate sets of personas, but that’s not to say they can’t or don’t overlap.

Personas that are developed for marketing purposes typically focus on demographics, messaging preferences, media habits, etc. For marketers, it’s incredibly important to understand how to talk to the target audience so they can understand what gets them engaged or excited, and ultimately convinces them to buy. In doing this the marketing team creates a set of personas that represent the buyers and influencers.

On the other hand, designers and product leaders use personas to understand actual users – the individuals that engage with the product on a regular basis. In this context they help us clarify the needs, desires, obstacles, and behavior patterns of the users so we can craft great experiences.

In the enterprise or B2B world, it’s often the case that the buyer is physically a different person than the user. For example, the VP of Sales might decide to purchase an annual subscription to Salesforce, but it’s most likely the sales managers and sales reps that use the product on a daily basis.

In the consumer or B2C world, it’s much more common for the buyer and user to be the same person. For example, a music lover may decide to purchase a monthly subscription to Spotify, and they will ultimately be the one that benefits from the seemingly endless selection of tunes to discover and curate – in this case effectively representing both buyer and user.

Now let’s put this into business context. The sales, marketing, and customer support teams need to fully understand the buyer and influencer personas in order to increase sales and drive revenue. However, each of these roles interacts with the buyer or influencer in a different way. Marketing focuses on research, data analysis, and focus groups. Sales spends their time knocking on doors (literally and figuratively) to connect on a personal level with new leads and hot prospects. Finally, support reps absorb customer feedback and work hard to address issues and keep paying customers happy (Please forgive my over-simplification of these roles, just trying to keep it brief!). At each touch point along the way, the salespeople, marketers, and support teams learn things about the buyers and influencers that will be valuable for future interactions or to other internal team members. What if each of those separate learnings could be captured in one central location for all to reference? In this way, those amalgamated insights would act as a central repository and virtual crystal ball for sales, marketing, and support to operate at their most effective level. Personas should be the vehicle for collecting and managing these learnings.

The same goes for designers, UX researchers, and product leaders. At each step in the product design and development process these individuals examine the patterns, preferences, and characteristics of the users. While conducting interviews and administering testing they each uncover new insights and subtle nuances that deepen the understanding of the users and their representative personas. Again, it seems logical that we would have a central location to record and utilize this information.

FTS Persona Tool Project ScreenThis leads me back to the persona management tool that I mentioned earlier. At Fresh Tilled Soil we decided to prototype a tool that would allow our clients to capture and record information about their personas on a rolling basis. In one example, a key member of the client team was an experienced usability expert. Her knowledge of and passion for her users was evident from the beginning, not to mention impressive and inspiring. A few weeks into the project we realized she spent a large majority of her time thinking about, defining, and re-formulating personas. Once we integrated all of her user research into our persona tool prototype, she was finally able to track each nuanced learning in one place, and share with rest of her team for focused collaboration. Even though we were still in the early days of the tool’s development, much closer to clunky than slick, the testing phase with this client validated the value of a flexible and collaborative persona management practice.

It was very important to us from the beginning to use the persona tool as a blueprint for best practices by defining important persona attributes. We wanted to create a repeatable structure that could be used across a wide variety of project types, with common information buckets that would guide the knowledge collection. That said, our initial architecture also provides configuration power to the persona administrator, allowing that individual to customize the template to suit the specific needs of the project. The base template focuses on the following areas, but again the administrator and project leaders can choose to edit these as they see fit.

Persona Tool Detail View

  • Empathy mapping
    • Saying
    • Seeing
    • Hearing
    • Thinking
    • Feeling
  • Core Activities
  • Attitude
  • Motivations
  • Wants & Needs
  • Concerns & Frustrations
  • Obstacles
  • Tools/substitutes they currently use to address their problem
  • Level of relevant experience
  • Interaction recommendation
    • What to remember
    • How to speak with / interact with a user
    • Additional tips

Next we decided to allow for attribute scaling. This is an area we’re still exploring, but the idea is to allow persona managers to use a sliding scale to define certain attributes. We’ve found this to be particularly helpful in the areas that are naturally measurable – like attitude, level of experience, etc.

Finally, and to state the obvious, the most important aspect of the tool is the collaboration component. This allows any member of the team to view, comment, edit, and create in a space for everyone to see. User permissions help to keep this in check, but ultimately we encourage all team members to contribute. We’re finding teams are able to use this to more effectively track user insights, and keep personas top-of-mind for both marketing and product work.

For us, the Persona Tool took the form of an actual application. We felt this would allow for flexibility and rapid iteration. However, I believe the level of fidelity matters less than simply developing a system that allows the members of your team to record and manage important learnings in a central location and easy-to-update environment. If you want to keep it simple, this can take the form of a Google spreadsheet, Sketch file, or even a set of physical persona cards. We would encourage you to be creative here. Again, the format doesn’t matter as much as the commitment to all use the same tool, and to do so on a regular basis!

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....