So… just who is our customer anyway?
Ever been in a product strategy meeting and unable to answer this simple question: So who is our customer?
It isn’t easy to answer because real-world solutions are complex. Customers have different needs. End-user problems are different from those of decision makers who must also “buy” your solution through support, funding or human resources. Or perhaps you have a 2-sided market – consider Uber drivers and Uber passengers. Both must find value in your solution to engage.
Personas are a tool for answering these chaotic questions. Personas (or buyer personas, marketing personas) are fictional representations of key customer characteristics.
Marketing professionals use personas to help teams empathize with customers as real humans. You can use the same tool bring speed and efficiency to your corporate innovation team.
Personas capture critical characteristics of your potential customer in a few categories:
- Current solution
All personas serve the same purpose: to help innovation teams empathize with customers and create solutions to solve their problems.
Personas are used … well … everywhere
High-functioning teams use personas in every customer-facing decision: feature design, usability, landing pages, content, advertising campaigns, etc.
Instead of asking …
Will someone pay for this feature?
… we ask …
Is our customer paying for a solution now that isn’t good enough?
What should I write about this week?
… but …
What are my customer’s problems and what can I write to address them?
Personas make these questions easier to answer.
- Get teams focusing on customer problems, not features.
- Amplify the different motivations of system actors.
- Simplify the complex. Teams can’t act on pages of interview notes or vague notions.
- Get new team members up to speed.
Best practices for building personas
You don’t need pretty designs and glossy diagrams – in fact, putting this much work into production will create resistance to future changes.
You can start with a simple Google doc like this one we created. Or just draw a 4-quadrant diagram on a white board.
Start small and keep iterating
In Lean UX Jeff Gothelf prefers to use the term “proto-persona” with innovative teams. The distinction contrasts the traditional advertising personas created by months of research by agencies.
Make your best first estimate in an hour or so. Then update personas as you do Customer Development and learn more about customers. You’ll often split a single customer profile into multiple profiles as you learn more.
Successful teams update personas every 2-3 months as they learn more about customer needs, or even more frequently in the early weeks of a new project.
Don’t forget to create a persona for all of your customers
Ignoring a key customer for convenience is treacherous. When I was working on new product innovation for Coca-Cola, I quickly realized the first customer I had to satisfy was The Coca-Cola Company and bottlers. I saw projects that focused solely on the end consumer falter if they ignored the constraints or the “needs” of our most important customer – the Coca-Cola system – for too long.
Watch for demographic biases
Unfortunately personas have one big potential risk: demographic bias. Personal and social biases can cause teams to make incorrect – or even hurtful – assumptions about people. Corporate innovation leaders are understandably concerned about creating documents with perceived biases.
Persona biases can cause big mistakes
The risk isn’t just an uncomfortable meeting with HR: personas based on demographic biases can misrepresent the needs of real customers. For example, suppose your team is looking for innovation solutions to (American) football merchandising.
Do you imagine a jersey-wearing, middle-aged man in Texas as the customer? It turns out the most important audience for the NFL is women.
Prevent bias by focusing on what matters and relying on research – not assumptions
In Describing Personas Indi Young has some great recommendations for avoiding persona bias:
Personas don’t work as generalizations; they need specific context. This is because personas aren’t meant for overall uses — they’re meant for ideation and designing solutions within a specific scope that your organization is concerned with this month or quarter.
Good guidelines for creating unbiased personas:
- Only use demographics if important to the customer problem or solution.
- Describe a customer in a way they would describe themselves.
- Back up your demographic distinctions with research.
Sometimes a simple choice of words can prevent demographic biases from introducing errors.
Jack, aged 62 is an age-based generalization.
Jack, 3 years from retirement describes Jack’s situation.
Jessica is a millennial does not tell you about what’s going on in Jessica’s life
Jess recently gave up diet soda and is looking for an afternoon pick-me-up tells you about Jessica’s situation in which she is looking to “hire” solutions.
Being a millennial doesn’t predict how Jessica will behave when she encounters your product…millennials don’t behave like millennials. They behave as individuals within a specific situation.
Demographic biases in personas are a controversial topic. Generalize too much and you’ll end up with worthless paperwork. Indi Young’s article is a good starting point for the tradeoffs.
Need help creating and using personas?
Personas are one of the easiest, most effective tools to get your team creating innovative solutions for your customers. But creating and using them effectively takes practice.
We cover personas in our 3-day experience events. Contact us if you’re interested in having us conduct one for you.
Also published on Medium.