6 Common Mistakes to Avoid with Customer Personas

This excerpt is great for any product leader or product manager trying to make more customer-driven decisions that won’t be overturned at the next meeting. One artifact that helps in this plight is the persona. Don’t roll your eyes! There are ways to develop effective personas that drive action for your teams and not just collect dust on a shelf. This excerpt from our book introduces some pitfalls that teams fall into in the development and use of personas. The full book expands on this and more!

The following has been excerpted from Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin. 

We once walked into our client’s building (name not mentioned to protect the innocent) and as part of the kickoff for the project, we asked for any documentation they had on their target customer. “You mean personas?” they asked. Yes! Exactly! 

They tapped out a message on Slack and minutes later, the UX designer walked into the conference room and placed three laminated, full color, 20” x 30” flip charts on the table. Each had four pages of detail, including pictures and text. Our eyes widened for just a second. As we started to thumb through the beautifully produced flip charts, we started asking questions. 

PR: How are these used?

Client: We use them when we design or redesign areas of the UX.

PR: Does the extended development team have copies of these? 

Client: No. They don’t need them.

PR: When was the last time you used them? 

Client: About three months ago, when we redesigned the onboarding experience.

PR: How were these developed? 

Client: We hired a design firm to research and produce these for us.

They had big, beautiful, professionally created personas they could hang on the wall, and could even spill food and water on without issue! And the research team used them. So, what’s the problem here? There were a few things:

It’s Not a Contest to Write the Longest, Most Detailed Persona

Don’t be fooled. Less is more here. You want the entire organization to know the personas, use them, and refer to them in all aspects of the product planning and creation process. They need to be simple, easily communicated, and constantly referenced.

It’s Not a Broad Persona

Too often we see wide swaths of the population depicted as the target market because they all experience the problem we’re solving. Hence, we create a broadly scoped persona. That may include solving it for someone who has the problem but doesn’t feel enough pain to act on that problem. This is a huge pitfall to avoid. Your target personas are only those willing to take the action you want them to in exchange for solving their problem; be it open their wallet, donate their time, respond to your communication, and so on.

One question we recommend asking during persona-related research is, “What would you be willing to pay to have this problem solved?” or “What would it take for you to open your wallet to pay for this solution concept we’re showing you?” or “What would you expect to pay for a solution like this?” Choose your own words to help you understand whether or not the research participant would be willing to take the action you want them to take. 

This is not meant to be a pricing discussion. We don’t recommend interviews for pricing research. To be clear, you should be focusing on people who have expressed a willingness to pay, donate, or act to have their problem solved and not those that show a mere interest in solving the problem. Your persona will become clearer as you understand who is willing to pay and who isn’t.

It’s Not About Outsourcing

Taking ownership of your customer is your job. This is the Groundwork you and your team must do with your own hands. Interacting with customers, discussing what you learned with the team, and coming to a shared vision on your target persona is a requirement for creating products that customers love. Don’t get us wrong—we do outsource research, but there is a time and place for outsourcing. For this aspect of the Groundwork, you need to learn from your customers firsthand.

It’s Not A Laundry List of Demographics

Our client didn’t make this mistake—they did a great job of deeply understanding the archetype and bringing each of these personas to life. But we frequently see personas represented as a list of demographics and a couple of attitudes, rendering the personas one dimensional and not actionable. Demographics are good for marketing in terms of buying direct mail lists, filtering within social media campaigns, and calculating available market sizes. But they are bad for making product and design decisions. You need to understand attitudes, behaviors, goals, a day-in-the-life, and similar information.

It Isn’t A Job Description

Many B2B personas we see describe a job and the daily tasks within that job. A list of job responsibilities is very helpful when you’re trying to understand where your problem space fits into the world of that persona and when you’re identifying relevant needs that must be addressed to solve the problem well. However, just knowing a person’s daily job tasks tells you nothing about who the person is or how you should build an experience that delights them. So, in other words, a job description is helpful in describing the “what” you’re going to do, but it doesn’t give you any guidance on “how” you’re going to do it. There are many ways to design a feature depending on the traits of your user. The feature addresses the task at hand but the design approach (the aesthetic, placement of buttons, vernacular used, types and number of steps to complete the task, etc.) will vary widely depending on who you are building that feature for. Avoid just focusing on what could turn into features (job tasks and responsibilities) and focus more on the inputs to your design approach (this person’s aspirations and how they go about their daily life).

It Isn’t “One-And-Done”

Personas are always evolving. Most of the time, you start with hypotheses about who your target user is. You’re never right the first time. For example, you may assume your persona is focused on accuracy given that they are an accountant and spend a lot of time playing the role of “accuracy police” with their staff. But as you conduct more research to investigate their needs you find that, yes, accuracy is important, but they actually view themselves as a coach that helps their staff build good data hygiene. 

Think about how differently you might design an accounting software experience for someone who views themselves as a coach to help others with their accuracy checking instead of someone who views themselves as the “accuracy police.” The former might have the product team prioritizing data reconciliation functionality for the staff roles, while the latter might prioritize the ability to check their staff’s work. It doesn’t mean you can’t do both, but it certainly would dictate your prioritization of the two areas of functionality.

As you conduct more research you will learn more about your target customer, proving or disproving your hypotheses and refining the persona. Without this refinement, personas get shelved and become out of touch with reality.

 

If you like what you see, there’s more where that came from. Pick up Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin from Amazon.

Product Rebels is a product management training and coaching firm run by long term product executives for companies like Intuit and Mitchell International. We have trained over 200 companies, small and enterprise level, in the skills and frameworks that help product management leaders and product managers deliver kick-ass customer experiences. We have a passion for finding efficient ways of infusing customer insight into everything product teams do in pursuit of experiences that customers love …and that drive growth.  Join us in the Product Rebels Community on Facebook or the Product Rebels Community on LinkedIn.

Take a look at our very practical training courses and coaching programs that give you practical tools, frameworks, and support you can use tomorrow in becoming a more effective product leader.  www.productrebels.com

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