The Problem With Personas

Personas are tools, fictional representations of your product’s target audience. These tools help provide the product team with context and enable better decision-making in the feature prioritization and development process.

But, like any tool or Magic Mushroom, they can be used for good or evil.

Or, less dramatically, they can be misunderstood or misapplied, and that can lead to trouble…

Personas 101

Personas move you from the abstract to the more concrete. Instead of talking about a generic user or a generic customer with some generic demographic information, you’re now dealing with… Jill.

You get to know Jill. Her needs. Her fears. Her underlying motivations. And once you have that view into her head, the theory is you’ll be in a better frame of mind to answer two questions:

  1. What profitable actions do I want Jill to take for me?
  2. What do I need to do for Jill so she takes that profitable action for me?

How Do I Make A Persona?

If you have users and customers, visit them. Talk with them. Research them. Understand them. Then build personas based on what you’ve uncovered.

If you don’t have users or customers (eg, a startup situation), take an educated guess based on the information you do have on hand and use that as a starting point. If you’re lucky, like 37signals, maybe you are your own target audience–in which case, how well do you understand your own motivations and needs?

Here’s An Example Persona

Meet Jill. She’s 35, single, smart. Marketing Director responsible for marketing communications as a mid-size e-commerce site. And she has a problem.

Jill’s problem:

  • She needs to brand campaigns that also drive monetizable traffic

Jill loves:

  • ROI
  • Straight talk
  • Her reputation
  • Experience with the product & product team
  • Identifying trends and new traffic sources before anyone else

Jill avoids:

  • Ambiguity
  • A dearth of facts
  • Poor analysis
  • Emotional arguments
  • Marketing fluff

Jill needs:

  • Demonstrable ROI out of the gate
  • Reliability
  • Flexibility
  • 24 hour customer support
  • The best deal she can get

Jill’s motivations:

  • Provide value to the company
  • Seek new relationships and technology to drive the company forward
  • Identify traffic sources before they’re recognized widely
  • Be considered a innovator & trend-spotter inside and outside the company
  • Eventually own her own business

The Pros Of Personas

  • Personas create empathy…
  • Empathy leads to understanding…
  • Understanding leads to consensus…
  • Consensus leads to eliminating nonessential features…
  • And informing decisions based on what the persona needs and wants.
  • [Feel free to insert your own Yoda joke here.]

The Pitfalls With Personas

There are at least three…

Personas, Shermsonas

Some teams don’t believe in personas. There’s been a lot of debate on that point. If you’re working with people who have been “duped” by personas in the past, you’re going to have a hard time convincing them of their utility.

Not Selecting The Right Personas

Each product should have at least three personas:

  1. Primary persona: Represents the archetype user or customer for your product.
  2. Secondary persona: With differing motivations, goals and other attributes from the primary persona.
  3. Negative persona: Represents the archetype you are not here to serve. Your product is not for them.

Note: If your buyers and your users are distinct, they should have distinct personas as well.

But each product release should be targeted to meet the needs of a specific target. Some teams create personas but don’t choose the right one to focus on; instead, all personas are in play all the time–or they apply the wrong persona to the wrong feature set. Be specific. Who is your next product release for? Focus.

Twisted Thinking

Sometimes, personas are twisted around feature sets–that is, instead of thinking about the individual, and her goals, the thinking gets wrapped around product features. This leads to rote personas who don’t help you get to where you need to be because you’ve missed the trees for the forest.

Other times, personas never move beyond theory–they never get informed by actual customer visits or user observations–and that can leave valuable information on the table. When you validate your assumptions with real customer interactions, you may learn things you couldn’t imagine…

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7 thoughts on “The Problem With Personas

  1. We’re planning our first user test, and the question we’re currently struggling with is, should we only test with users from our primary persona? I would like to hear everyone’s thoughts on this matter. Thank you.

  2. Hi Becky –

    Good question. It would probably depend on what sort of test this is? For a new product? And existing product? If it’s a new product, my advice would be to test with a reasonable range of potential users, even if they fall outside the primary persona, because very few products only have a primary personas using them… Agree? Disagree?

    – Chris

  3. What’s the best practice for the number of personas a product should have. Particularly for enterprise software, where there are many roles involved with buying and using your software. Sometimes the buyer doesn’t use the software, but they are comparing your product with others during the purchase decision. What’s a good rule of thumb for merging many personas into fewer?

  4. Great post, Chris. I’m a strong believer in personas. If created and applied right – as you describe here – they really take the opinion out of the discussions … tough to argue against all the customer visits / data collection you’ve done. It’s critically important to have personas for all those that “touch” the product … including the Application Admin persona. I find that, especially for enterprise software products, this persona is neglected or even worse omitted. The Application Administrator is usually part of the IT group … who can very easily veto your product if it does not meet their needs.

  5. Great post. Great site. We used personas for more complex products in the Fortune 50 company I worked for. We generally had multiple personas based on company/segment size and vertical market.

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