Leveraging Personas to Make Better Business Decisions

Persona avatars with silly names

As a young boy I eagerly looked forward to Sunday nights. After dinner and a warm bath, I would sit in front of the television and watch The Muppet Show with my family. As a grade-schooler, it felt as if my family would invite the whole cast of characters into our household - Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear, the Swedish Chef, and Animal, to name a few. However, if any of these characters were really invited over for dinner, I suspect we might prepare each meal differently depending on who was our guest. Being sophisticated and expecting the finer things, Miss Piggy would demand we take out our fine china with fancy place settings. Clearly, we would not serve bacon-wrapped ANYTHING. On the other hand, Animal might have difficulty with foods that could not be cleaned up easily, like grape juice or spaghetti with marinara sauce, and we'd have to use paper plates. As host for this dinner, my family would need to thoughtfully consider each guest before making decisions about the meal we might serve.

Similarly, in the workplace, we need to consider the unique needs and goals of each of the people we ultimately serve: the coworkers, users, buyers (or whomever you consider your customers) of the programs, products, services, or even policies that impact them. Short of involving our customers in every step of our work to influence our business decisions, we can leverage personas. Personas are fictitious, specific, and concrete representations of target customer groups for a product or service that creates a sense of empathy for real customers. They provide an actionable narrative that leverages research, as well as internal understandings.

The Sad Truth

Personas are the result of rigorous research, often a combination of qualitative and quantitative research. There are different types of personas too, depending on the need. Marketing-focused personas help businesses make decisions based on their understanding of their current or future customers. These personas often benefit for-profit companies who seek to make revenue-based decisions for attracting and retaining customers. On the other hand, product-focused personas help businesses make decisions based on the behaviors, needs, and goals of users of their products. These personas benefit companies who produce digital or physical products, informing such things as the product roadmap or features that might best meet the desires of its user base.

Unfortunately, in the product space, these personas are often left collecting dust on the shelf. Why? There are a few common reasons, including:

  • Focus on Tech: Technical teams may be so solution-focused that they prioritize their understanding of system roles and permissions rather than taking the time to gain empathy for real people and their usage stories. They may think that it’s not their responsibility to have a deep understanding of their users’ needs and goals.
  • Focus on Business Goals: Businesses build roadmaps based on organizational drivers and may not regularly collect or consider customer feedback. They may think that it’s not their responsibility to have a deep understanding of their users’ needs and goals.
  • Focus on Delivery: Product teams sometimes rush to a solution before understanding or addressing the right problem. These teams design and develop for themselves, assuming they know what’s best for their users. They may think that it’s not their responsibility to have a deep understanding of their users’ needs and goals.

In my experience, successful teams do not only focus on their own skill sets and individual responsibilities. They share the critical responsibility of knowing who their users are and understanding their unique needs and goals. One design leader I look up to argues that it is the responsibility of everyone on a product team to "embrace regular and frequent exposure to users.​ 2 hours every 6 weeks​." (Jared Spool, User Interface Engineering). While that may be impossible to achieve, it begs the question, when was the last time you observed customers using your product or service?

Getting Started

typical one-sheet persona plus persona playing cards

I sometimes ask clients, "Who is your customer?" Regularly I hear people respond with one name, such as "buyer" or "coworker." The fact is that each of us should be able to identify at least three customers who benefit from our work. So first, we must identify those unique people types that benefit from our product or service. Even if you do not have a research-focused person on your team, you can develop what are called "proto personas," which are hypothesis-based, unvalidated by real users. Take some time to document what you already know - locate background materials stored somewhere. Speak to people in your organization who have interacted with these people. Analyze quantitative data stored in a database somewhere. Or simply recall experiences you've had interacting with these people. While there is no universally accepted format or style to tell this person's story, there are a few things we might include. In fact, after an analysis of various personas created across a community of product teams I work with, I identified some common elements often included:

  • Name - May use a real name or something silly and memorable
  • Picture - Real or an Avatar
  • Location
  • Age Range or Experience
  • Role or Job Title
  • Quote - something notable that succinctly captures the persona's focus
  • Goals - The needs and goals this person has when using your product or service
  • Pain Points (or Opportunities) - The things that prevent this persona from accomplishing their goals
  • Day in the Life - a quick story that exemplifies this person's role and how the use of your product or service fits into the bigger picture of their life

Now once these hypothesis or assumption-based proto personas are developed, it's time to validate them. Set up time to talk to these target users. Ask questions. Really uncover their needs and goals. Be prepared to tell a rich story about these people. The story should not just be about using your product or service. Delve into what makes each persona group unique. The goal is to share each unique story with your team, not just so they have the facts, but so they can make empathy-informed decisions about the product or service.

Real World Uses

venn diagram reflecting feasibility, viability, and desirability

So, once we bring back a proto persona or a fully validated persona, how can teams make better business decisions by leveraging these artifacts? My encouragement to you would be first to consider the ways you might involve a real person in your day-to-day work cadences. Do you have recurring meetings where you discuss work that will impact your customer? Do you create project artifacts so that other team members have clear expectations about the work they are to produce? Clearly, we cannot invite our users to attend every meeting we attend and read every document produced to align our team. So, how might we creatively represent them, so they have a figurative seat at the table? The diagram here illustrates that we achieve the best solutions when our users are equally represented in our conversations and considered in our business decisions.

So how can we represent them? I offer a few creative options, including:

  • Create user stories that replace “user” or “role” with the actual name of your persona, and link to the persona for those who may be unfamiliar with their user types.
  • Print out personas and decorate your workspace with them. Better yet, once we return to our offices in person, post personas in communal spaces where they will get views, like lunchrooms or even bathrooms!
  • Create a cardboard cutout of each persona and have team members adopt one and take it with them to physical meetings. Or, if virtual, create a digital headshot and have team members sign in 2 times to your web meeting, once as you and once representing one of your personas.
  • Create trading cards for a team-building activity or for new employee onboarding. Pass out a stack of trading cards that only represent 1 of many personas. Your job is to talk with other team members and trade so that you end up with a full set.

Now some forty-something years later, as a parent I sometimes slip into the role of a Muppet Show character. While my wife is strong in her impression of Miss Piggy, I do a mean Kermit as well as Swedish Chef impression. With my 5-year-old, my antics are well-received and memorable for her. For my teenage daughters, they are memorable, just for another reason. As I think back to my own best experience using personas, I recall a meeting I had with the development team. Being in the edtech space, I likely created some silly name for this persona like "Edith Educator" or something along those lines. And I remember as the team was negotiating the level of effort required to create a feature, one cantankerous engineer stated matter-of-factly, "This feature would not be delightful enough for Edith, who has to use this capability every day!" I just about fell out of my seat. That is why we create and infuse persona artifacts into the everyday cadence of our teams. Make them representative. Make them memorable. Use them every day.