Blog / Using Customer Personas to Develop a Competitive Edge

Looking to understand how human beings impact website design? It's something we do every day. Make sure to leave us a comment if you like this article.

Here's a quote from Dorie Clark's article on "Using Customer Personas to Develop a Competitive Edge":

It's human nature: When we design products, we often design for ourselves. Sometimes, when your strategic planning is perfectly aligned with the needs of your customers, this can work well. But other times it means you're missing critical nuances and the opportunities they present. "We call that self-centered design," said Phillip Djwa, founder and principal of Agentic Digital Media, a web development agency that works with many middle market companies.

The article goes into greater depth on how you can use these personas to understand how to design better. Let us know if this article makes sense to you. Essentially, there are a few great tips:

1.     What are personas, and why are they helpful for organizations to develop?
 Personas are a simple way for organizations to align their marketing efforts by inventing archetypical users (or customers) that can be used internally to represent each type of user. They "personify" a potential user.  It helps us keep the fact that actual human beings will be using our software or websites.  It is a key part of human centered design.  Typically, we use them for testing our software and websites against a "real" person by placing them in scenarios and imagining how they would act. We use them also for benchmark messaging, products and services. They put a face on the user, and act as a design target for everyone involved. I often use them more for audience, customers or visitors of a website rather than using them for testing product acceptance. For that I would actually use real focus group participants.

2.     How well should an organization know its target audience before starting to develop its major brand persona's?
 I believe that an organization should know its target audience quite well before developing a persona. A persona embodies potential users and brings them to life. The market research could shave been interviews, customer feedback, staff interviews, surveys, etc.
Also, personas help align all the stakeholders in a project. If you asked each stakeholder to describe a user, each would probably describe someone quite differently. By developing personas together, we get the best of the thinking distilled into the personas we all agree on. It also helps people step outside their own skin. What we notice is that sometimes people create too much for people that are the same as them. We called the "self-centered" design. Personas help you step outside this frame.

3.     Is there a right number of personas? How many is too many?
 
I tend to develop three to five.  ideally, my client has completed market research about their audience, or created segmentation enough that we can develop a few well-crafted personas.  Honestly, if there are more than that, chances are it is too much to focus on. Also, most clients can really target only a few key segments with enough resources and thoughtfulness that it becomes useful.

4.     What are some of the important questions for us to ask when developing key personas?
We look at developing basic and more detailed personas. For example, a basic persona might just be a name identified needs and motivation and a scenario in which they would operate. A more sophisticated persona might include behaviors, quotes demographic information, technology comfort, personal backgrounds and even a photograph. All of these are invented, but also incorporate the market research that has been developed.
 
5.     Tell me about the process by which you help clients come up with personas. What does it look like?

  • Based on market/user research develop a list of attributes
  • Using the attributes, we segment the audience into behavioral “chunks” or segments
  • Based on these segments, we craft one or two personas that reflect key tasks and motivations for a typical user from each segment

6.     Is there a danger of over-stereotyping our potential clients when developing personas? If so, what are the potential repercussions?
 Absolutely. The point of developing a persona is to stereotype. But it is a useful stereotype because it has more archetypical qualities of a potential user or customer. Let's face it, reading long market research reports  doesn't always translate to all the graphic designers, communication folks, and programmers in a way that they can absorb. A well-crafted persona is a useful and lively way of capturing and describing user needs for everyone.

7.     How much is a persona created vs. discovered?
 For us, the personas entirely created. But the aspect of discovery is a very interesting idea. The way that it works for us is that often times a persona can be described fairly easily by our clients or emerges from the market research. But the discovery comes when we identify a segment that wasn't previously obvious to the client and developer persona of somebody that we suddenly recognize is a key segment, but hadn't been there before. It's almost like meeting a new friend. "Oh, have you been there all this time? Pleased to meet you!"

8. How much detail do you go into when creating a persona? How far do you flesh them out?

It really depends. You have to remember that personas are only part of the user experience design. They are a key aspect, and so details can be very helpful. On the other hand develop a detailed personas can be a lot of work. For some projects, a relatively simple persona is necessary. However, I know that people often invest personally more when the persona starts to become more real. We start to even talk to them and address them in our meetings. It's an incredibly powerful way to bring the voice of the customer to the table.
 
9.  When building a brand persona, how far should we plan for that persona to change and grow?

I love this question. We don't tend to develop personas past the particular spot of their use. They are part of a value chain of human centered design. At the end of a project we might revisit their personas to ensure that were still feeling like we are on track. But rarely do we use them in terms of changing and growing. But that is a reflection of the project process rather than an ideal. Ideally, as the client's customer base changes so should the personas.

10. Looking for further reading?

A great reference book is Tamara Adlin's
http://www.amazon.com/The-Persona-Lifecycle-Interactive-Technologies/dp/0125662513

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