Table of Contents
- Personas: What?
- Creating Useful Personas
- Personas: When and why?
- Needfinding with Personas & Problem Scenarios
- Storyboarding with Personas (Personas in Motion)
- Developing & Testing Personas
- Personas & Lean/Lean Startup
- Personas & Agile
- Next Steps?
- Reference A: Example Personas & Problem Scenarios
- Reference B: Personas Template
Personas are humanized descriptions of customers and users, useful for anything that has to do with making stuff or selling stuff. In college marketing classes and/or watching 80’s movies (I’ve done both so I’m a major expert), we learn that the way you describe a market is something like ‘males 25-35 with incomes over $30,000/year’. But who is that guy? How would you figure out what innovative new product or feature he might like?
The reality is that those profiles aren’t very discussable, actionable or testable. They circulate pointless arguments in corporate conference rooms and encourage bland products nobody particularly likes. Personas drive more constructive discussions, smarter action, and dovetail with lean and other increasingly popular approaches to evidence-based innovation.
Ultimately they are just a tool, and it takes some commitment and practice to achieve maximum impact. The good news is that it’s easy to get started and you’ll see benefits right away. The rest of this page is about helping you do that.
Good personas tell a story. If you watch interviews with innovators like Jack Dorsey (Twitter, Square), you’ll often hear them talk about how they’ve learned to be better storytellers. This isn’t to discount the importance of being rigorous and quantitive- it’s to anchor that rigor in a meaningful starting point and identify the right tools for that starting point.
Avoid bullet points. The ‘plastic persona’ you see is the opposite of what you want. The photo is clipart from the Internet. The description is a set of generic bullet points and they don’t say much of anything about who this person really is or what they want. Get real photos. Create a collage of real stuff. If you’re saying that your target persona Tweets or posts certain types of content online, get examples. If you’re saying that they hate doing paperwork, get samples of the kind of paperwork they have to do. Write full sentences that deliver a narrative. Speaking of pictures, include them, and make sure they’re real, actual people from in the target persona group.
The ‘organic persona’ is a better start. There’s an actual paragraph of description, and that the photo was taken with an iPhone out in the field, which is where you should be when you’re developing personas. I personally like to give all the personas a first name- ‘Mary the Mom’; ‘Andrew the Accountant’. One of the top failure modes of persona creation is that they have their humanity peeled away or just never acquire it. Giving them a name is a trick that helps humanize them.
Once you’ve humanized your persona, you’ll want to operationalize it in your particular area (online banking, dating, shopping for power tools- whatever area you’re working). The Think-See-Feel-Do checklist is a good way to frame this. If you’re not sure about one of these items, go ahead and suppose something and write it down, but be sure to make a clear note that it’s something you need to go learn more about in your customer discovery. We’ll cover testing and validation soon.
|THINK||What is their point of view on your area of interest?
What do they like, dislike about it?
What’s the difference in their view between how it is and how it should be?
|SEE||What influences and informs them about your area of interest?
Where do they get that? Peers? Media?
|FEEL||What are the underlying emotional drivers in the area?
How does that influence what they do and their interest in alternatives?
|DO||When you observe them, what do they actually do?|
If you’d like to see a few example personas, those are here: Example Personas.
Creating Useful Personas
In classes and workshops, I get the questions a lot: ‘How do I know when I’m done? In good shape?”. The long answer is that with a tool like personas, it’s always a work in progress. The short version is that there are a few things you can quickly validate to help make sure you’re on track.
To that end, here’s a checklist for the creation of quality personas that are ‘VARIED‘.
The ‘VARIED’ Persona Checklist
|VIVID||If you hand the persona to a colleague, do you they get a sense that they know the persona?
Could they answer a question like ‘What’s the last movie this persona saw?’ and be able to provide plausible answers about how they inferred their answer from what you gave them?
Photos and other scrapbook type items help a ton here.The ‘Day in the Life‘ exercise gives a sense of how this works.
|ACTIONABLE||If the persona doesn’t inform how you sell stuff and build stuff, why bother?The Think-See-Feel-Do checklist is a good way to help the persona respond better to your operational questions.We’ll also be reviewing groupings of problem scenarios, alternatives, and value propositions as a way to link what you’re delivering to a testable view of your persona.|
|REAL||Good personas aren’t created in cubicles. Go where the persona is and observe.If you want to create an app for parents to distribute allowance to their kids, you should be taking a lot of photos of chore lists. If you’re creating enterprise software for customer care, you should be observing a lot of customer service rep’s.|
|IDENTIFIABLE||Make sure you can identify and target these personas, or you won’t be able to find a use for them.What attributes and behaviors identify these personas? In what places and through what channels can you find them? How would you know one if you saw one?|
|EXACT||If the persona isn’t exact and distinctive, you’re back to the ‘makes 25-35…’ problem: the profile is so generalized it can’t drive any useful action. Yes, bigger populations mean bigger markets but with such a generalized understanding of the customer you’ll end up at the lowest common denominator with your product and promotion.What happens then? Your competitors will re-segment that market with material that’s more relevant and steal it from you, piece by piece.The strongest competitors hold their market piece by piece with product and promotion anchored in relevant understanding of segments (personas) of their market.|
|DETAILED||People are complicated and so good personas are usually pretty substantial. I hate to even offer a suggestion on length because it’s really quality that matters and that varies with with goals and nature of the personas.That said, a working description less than 500 words (including Think-See-Feel-Do) is probably less than optimal. As long as the content’s relevant and consumable by your internal or client audiences, more is, of course, just fine.|
‘Day in the Life’ is an exercise that’s popular in the design community for working through personas. The format is that the moderator shows photos and/or scrapbook elements (emails, texts, Tweets, notes) that showcase a persona over the course of their day. The moderator then asks a series of questions about the persona.
There’s no right answer, but there is a right process and that’s making sure you’ve inferred your answers based on what you saw. The target outcome is that the participants are more comfortable and more fluent with the concept of personas as a way to answer questions and ultimately make decisions.
Day in the Life Exercise
Creating an actual Day in the Life for your customers (and/or users) is a great way to push toward personas that are highly VARIED. You’ll, of course, want to spend the most time with them when they’re actually doing things relevant to your product area.
If it’s your job to lead the effort, creating your own Day in the Life exercise (like the one above) is a great way to show your colleagues (and/or clients) what you mean and get them over the hump on applying empathy and humanity to their understanding of the customer. (See notes on the workshop page for Day in the Life to get some tips on running the exercise.) On specific steps, there are many paths to arrive at quality personas. Here are the general steps I use with students and advisees:
Personas in 4 Steps
|Step 1||Define and Draft||List out all the personas you can think of- more is more. Make sure you’re covering buyers as well as users. Then rank order them in terms of importance. All this should be quick and dirty for starters- 5-10 minutes max.Now take your first few personas and write as much as you can about them. Do Think-See-Feel-Do. Find a photo on LinkedIn or Facebook that represents the persona.Target outcome: You have a sense of what you know, what you don’t know, and what you most want to learn more about. You’re focused and motivated to go out into the real world, meet these people, and observe them.|
|Step 2||Validate and Refine||We’ll walk through this in more detail in the corresponding section below, but the basic idea here is to think about your personas as a hypothesis that you’re going to prove, disprove, and probably refine.The fuel for this is first hand observation of your personas in relevant situations.Target outcome: You have a set of personas refined based on real observations out in the world where they live.|
|Step 3||Test Drive||This isn’t an intellectual exercise- it’s a way to make money! If this personas are good, you should be able to use them to anchor discussions about what products you’re going to build and how you’re going to promote them.I recommend doing this gradually and on a success basis, but if you’re not able to use the personas in a material way at this point, there’s a problem. (Here’s a piece on using personas with agile that might help some.)Target outcome: Personas are an operational habit- they’re your go-to tool for asking and answering questions about what you should build and how you should sell it. Just to be clear, this absolutely does not mean the persona definitions themselves are the source of what’s wrong and what’s right. It means that discussions are framed around personas. If it’s working, you’ll be busy answering new questions and testing new assumptions about the personas and you’ll be updating the persona definitions frequently.|
|Step 4||Maintain & Revise||Make sure the personas are highly visible and I’d err on the side of letting more vs. fewer people edit them. This is part of the reason I created the persona template in Google Doc’s- makes it easy to keep them accessible and editable. Be ready to change them all the time or they’ll quickly become irrelevant.Target outcome: Referencing personas and using them as the repository for the team’s validated learning on product and promotion is a regular habit.|
The online workshop ‘Venture Design I: Achieving Customer Relevance‘ covers this material in more detail with an agenda and specific exercises you can do with your team.
Personas: When and why?
I made the sweeping statement that personas are useful for everything that has to do with creating and promoting product:
Let me tell you a little more about how that can work. Below is a sequential view of the process I teach, Venture Design:
My view is- start with personas. If you don’t know who you’re building for or promoting to, how do you expect to connect with them? Figure out what to do if you connect with an echoing silence? From the personas, I recommend hypothesizing problem scenarios and alternatives.
Problem scenarios are just a structured view of what the persona wants to do and how they’re doing it right now. Then you hypothesize value propositions, what you’ll do for them that’s better than their alternative(s), and you attach assumptions to that since you don’t really know if you’re right about those value propositions.
Then you go out in the world, discovering and experimenting. Discovery is something you do observing and interviewing individuals who map to your personas, as we discussed above. Experiments are ways to actually observe what the persona does with regard to your value propositions- do they bite or just swim away? How can you test that with a minimum of time or money? For more on this, see the material on Lean Startup.
When you’re ready to build things, personas serve as the anchor point for the agile user stories I recommend using for best practice product (and promotion) development. For more on this, see the material on Agile & User Stories.
For any given execution, you’re trying to drive to a point where you can say ‘This is working, let’s do more of it’ or a point where you say ‘This isn’t working. Let’s revise it and try again.’ Here’s what’s great about doing that with personas- you’re operating on and enhancing a strong foundation understanding of the customer so that everything you try should be making you smarter and leading to better decisions with a higher probability of a good outcome.
Fundamentally, personas should serve as the foundation for any product-driven operation. Here’s a structure view of Venture Design, showing personas at the foundation: If you’re interested in more on Venture Design in general, see the Venture Design page.
Needfinding with Personas & Problem Scenarios
Despite the steady ascendence of the importance ascribed to good design, there’s still a lot of misinformation. This diagram summarizes two of the most popular misperceptions I come across:
Needfinding, a set of methods originally developed at Stanford over 50 years ago, offers a better alternative. Strategically, it provides a solution to the ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’- by focusing on core problems/needs (which rarely change) instead of solutions (which change a lot), your company remains anchored in a durable foundation. Tactically, it helps make sure that your customer research is actionable.
I like to organize needfinding around three key elements: 1) problem scenarios 2) alternatives and 3) value propositions. Your job is to develop empathy for your personas’ problem scenarios and alternatives, and then hypothesize how you can deliver something better enough than those alternatives to be relevant.
The following diagram summarizes this framework:
I think you’ll find these problem scenario-alternative-proposition trios are more discussable, actionable, and testable than most alternatives. How many meetings have you been in where there’s argument about which features the firm should implement? Why not at least argue about which problems really exist and are important? At least then you’re much closer to what’s fundamentally relevant to the customer.
If you’re selling to businesses (B2B), ask yourself what fundamental jobs you’re doing for the customer- these don’t change over time. While the way we fulfill them change, neither do our fundamental needs and desires, which is what you’ll be looking at if you’re selling a consumer product (B2C).
Following identification and prioritization of your target problem scenarios, you’ll want to look at alternatives- how is the customer/user resolving these problem scenarios today? If the problem scenario really exists, they’re doing something about it now. Discovery around both problem scenarios and alternatives is much less costly than discovery on propositions for the simple reason that you don’t have to have anything built to acquire the answer. You just need to go out and observe your customer personas. Only after you have a working view on the relevance of problem scenarios and an understanding of current alternatives would I recommend evaluating value propositions.
I use an example company called ‘Enable Quiz’ in my book and the rest of the curriculum here. They’re testing a solution for companies that hire engineers and want to better screen technical talent so their hiring process works better.
The key personas are Helen the HR Manager who’s acquires resumes and helps screen candidates and Frank the Functional Manager who determines his hirings needs and makes the final decision on hiring for the team he manages. Here’s a few notes on their problem scenarios, alternatives, and Enable Quiz’s ideas on value propositions for them:
|PERSONA||Helen the HR Manager||Frank the Functional Manager|
|PROBLEM SCENARIO||“It’s hard for me to screen on technical skill sets and I end up sending Frank unqualified recruits.”||“I have limited time and I don’t want to be a jerk. It’s hard to screen for all the relevant technical skill sets.”|
|ALTERNATIVE(S)||– Call references- Take their word for it||– A few probing questions- Take their word for it|
|VALUE PROPOSITIONS||New ability for meaningful screening of technical candidates, increasing % of successful hires and lowering Frank’s workload on recruiting.||Less time doing interviews, and better hires sooner.|
Your key question around these problem scenario-alternative-value proposition trios is: How much better is my value proposition than the current alternative(s)? Is it ‘better enough’ that the customer’s going to buy or use my product?
In fact, you can roll all this into a testable formulation I like to call the ‘product hypothesis’ (though if could also apply to an individual feature) as follows:
This leaves you with a highly testable view of your personas and whether what you’re going to deliver will hit the mark. Shortly, we’ll look at some ways to test that assumption, but first I’d like to show you how storyboards can help improve your personas.
Storyboarding with Personas (Personas in Motion)
Storyboarding is a great way to show what you mean with your personas. Communicating is hard and arguing is worse. And we’re probably much less effective communicators than we think — possibly as much as 20x less effective. In 1990 a Stanford researcher performed a study where on one party (“tapper”) tapped out a simple song a a counterparty (“listener”) tried to interpret the song. The tapper thought their listener had recognized the song 50% of the time where they’d actually only got it 2.5% of the time (this from the book ‘Made to Stick’). Unlike rhythmic tapping, storyboards inherently make us better communicators.
As a writer, you’re constantly learning how to be a better storyteller. As a programmer, one hugely important skill is learning to think sequentially. As a designer, you learn how to marry written and visual communication. The process of storyboarding improves your communication on all three fronts:
- It’s narrative, helping us tell our story
- It’s sequential, helping us walk through complex ideas
- It’s visual, helping us engage more of our audience’s facilities
Disney is cited as the first example of storyboarding in its modern form where they used it to organize The 3 Little Pigs. Before that everyone sat in a room together and hoped all the stuff they drew fit together at the end. This element of practicality and forethought is one end of storyboarding; the other is creative freedom. The practice of storyboarding does a nice job of balancing these.
The Before & After Storyboard
With this format, we push ourselves to make sure we’ve really thought through our product hypothesis. This is actually a pair of storyboards, both describing the same problem scenario.
The ‘before’ board shows the relevant personas using their current alternative to resolve the problem problem scenario. The ‘after’ board shows the same problem scenario with your value proposition in place. The board below illustrates the problem scenarios above around hiring engineering talent:
Here’s the narrative with a little more detail:
Helen the HR Manager does an initial screening on Chris the Candidate. She can look at experience but doesn’t really have the ability to validate the candidate’s skill set.
Chris the Candidate is then passed along to Frank the Functional Manager.
Frank the Functional Manager is really busy and just goes and make the hire.
But in this case a stitch in time would have saved nine- the candidate doesn’t actually have the required skills to the degree Frank understood/expected/wanted.
Now Frank the Functional Manager has to figure out how to fix a situation where his employee doesn’t have the right skill sets.
The next board narrates the process once the personas of interest have access to the value propositions the Enable Quiz product offers.
Helen the HR Manager now has a simple way to screen out candidates missing the skills Frank the Functional Manager has said are an absolute requirement.
Making good hires is rarely easy but Frank the Functional Manager now at least knows they’ll have a certain baseline skill set.
And life’s a lot better.
Storyboarding the Customer Journey
My favorite framework for thinking about the customer lifecycle is “AIDA” (attention, interest, desire, action). I also like to add an “OR” (onboarding, retention) since these are so important to many of the products I deal with today.
Fun fact: this framework is ancient by the standards of today’s business press- it was introduced by marketers in the 19th century (yes, the 1800’s). AIDA(OR) is one of my favorite storyboarding topics simply because lots of product teams I meet with haven’t thought through the whole acquisition process in vivid, actionable, testable terms. Here’s a simple 6-panel storyboard where we hypothesize about Helen the HR Manager’s customer journey. Here it is with a little more detail:
ATTENTION: Helen the HR Manager sees a post from her friend (former co-worker) on LinkedIn that she likes something called ‘Enable Quiz’ for screening engineering candidates.
INTEREST: That problem’s on her mind and it catches her notice. The site’s splash page clearly explains what it’s about: effectively, automatically screening technical talent. No assembly required.
DESIRE: Helen’s tired of not being able to improve their success rate on hires and having to clean up the emotional, financial, and logistical mess when a hire doesn’t work out. It’s never going to be 100% but it should be better than it is. Also, Helen has her annual review in three months and she’d love to add ‘implemented new screening system for engineering candidates’ to her list of accomplishments for the year.
ACTION: She checks in with Frank since he has to buy in and give her inputs to tune the quizzes for their positions.
Conveniently, the Enable Quiz site has a page for hiring managers that she forwards to him. But he doesn’t read it, she catches him in the hallway, and he says fine, especially if they can try it first and it’s only $2/candidate.
ONBOARDING: She puts in a credit card and they’re rolling with a free trial for 10 candidates. The site’s built-in wizard helps Helen draft quiz content for their open positions and submit it to Frank for review/update.
She ends up dragging Frank into her office to finish up but overall the process is pretty painless. They try it out with their first candidate the next day and the results are good.
RETENTION: Screening candidates using Enable Quiz becomes a habit and they’re using on average 20-40 quizzes/month. Helen has herself posted about it on LinkedIn after becoming a fan. They’re thinking about implementing skills audit for their existing staff.
For more on storyboarding (including templates and online tools you can use to get started), please see: Storyboarding Tutorial.
Developing & Testing Personas
You may have heard of ‘lean’, possibly through the popularity of the Lean Startup movement. The basic idea is to avoid waste and learn from direct observation, be that with customers or internal users. Lean pairs well with design thinking and the use of personas as a way to organize and focus your learning, and as a safeguard against design practices becoming arbitrary (yes, it happens).
You saw above how we took a point of view on personas, problem scenarios, alternatives and value propositions and framed it as a testable hypothesis, the ‘product hypothesis’. Pairing personas with lean means organizing your major ideas into testable formulations, figuring out efficient ways to test them, testing, and then executing your next steps based your results: was your idea a) validated b) invalidated or c) the experiment was inconclusive.
In the first case you have confidence to act on the idea and scale it; with a ‘b’ or ‘c’ result it’s time to reformulate and retest. When I work with teams, we ultimately organize the output of our personas and work around design thinking into these 4 key hypothesis areas:
|Persona Hypothesis||Do you know who the customer (or user) really is? What makes them tick?This is an exercise in definition and discovery. New product teams often find they haven’t been granular enough. Teams working on existing products often find they have actually have various personas using the product for different reasons.|
|Problem Hypothesis||Have you identified specific jobs, needs the persona actually has? Are those important? What alternatives are they using now?Once you have an idea of who you’re looking at, you learn what they care about- the trick is not to ask then directly, because then they’ll just tell you what you want to hear. Tips and tricks below.|
|Value Hypothesis||For your key problem scenarios, is your value proposition better enough than the alternatives? At this point, observations and interviews start to run into limitations. You really need to present your proposition in a way that’s relevant to your target personas. That does not mean you need a full working product- proxies and prototypes are much better so that you can see if you’re on a valuable course before you over-invest in building something no one/not enough people want.|
|Customer Creation Hypothesis||Do you have a profitable recipe to acquire and retain customers? How can you make that even better? Scale it?Once you have the fabled ‘product/market fit’, meaning you have an adequately sized population where you can reliably sell what you have, then you’re looking to optimize and scale your recipes for creating and maximizing customer relationships.|
|Usability Hypothesis||Is the product easy to use? Are users using it in the way you intended? What does that mean?Every (successful) product remains a work in progress. Personas are a great way to anchor and focus your understanding of the relationship between user and product.|
The sections that follow offer checklists to formulate and test your personas & problem scenarios. For a deeper dive on this, including templates for customer discovery, please see: The Customer Discovery Handbook.
Quality personas arise from observational learning. OK, but how much? I’m often asked: “How many people do I need to interview before I’m in good shape?” I hate to even hazard a number because it’s much more important whether you’re converging toward a consistent result. (I usually say if you’ve interviewed less than five subjects you should definitely keep going.).
The balance of this section provides tools to get there: checklists, key considerations, examples, and a template you can use to organize your work. I’ve organized the checklist below around a series of ‘sub-hypotheses’ under the persona hypothesis along with some ideas for experiments you can do to test your personas.
|This persona exists (in non-trivial numbers) and you can identify them.||Can you think of 5-10 examples?
Can you set up discovery interviews with them?
Can you connect with them in the market at large?
|✔︎||You understand this persona well.||What kind of shoes do they wear?Are you hearing, seeing the same things across your discovery interviews?|
|✔︎||Do you understand what they Think in your area of interest?||What do you they mention as important? Difficult? Rewarding?
Do they see the work (or habit) as you do?What would they like to do better? To be better?
|Do you understand what they See in your area of interest?||Where do they get their information? Peers? Publications?
How do they decide what’s OK? What’s aspirational?
|How do they Feel about your area of interest?||What are their triggers for this area? Motivations?
What rewards do they seek? How do they view past actions?
|Do you understand what they Do in your area of interest?||What do you actually observe them doing?
How can you directly or indirectly validate that’s what they do?
Outcomes I frequently see with product teams here are that they end up re-segmenting their personas into more granular versions (Wanda the Working Mom, Yvette the Young Mom, etc. vs. Mary the Mom) and not infrequently a pivot to a more significant problem area (I’ve divided up the persona and problem hypotheses for analytical clarify but you’ll generally be working them in tandem.)
THE EARLY ADOPTER PERSONA
Another key consideration if you’re rolling out a new product or a substantial new feature is your early adopter persona and how that helps you transition to the balance of the market.
Geoff Moore adapted some research on seed adoption among commercial farmers to describe a ‘chasm’ between early adopters and the mainstream market. The basic idea is that you’ll often have a core of enthusiasts that will purchase and try new products in a given space, but that doesn’t translate to mainstream success in a linear way.
The propositions that were adequate for the early market may not be sufficient for the mainstream. What’s a good tool to identify these differences in discussable, actionable, testable terms? Yes, you guessed it: personas and problem scenarios.
While still relevant, the technology adoption lifecycle is less applicable as the risk premium and switching costs decrease. The ease of cloud services and app stores has reduced this for a lot of technology products, making their marketing more like regular old consumer (or business) products.
Another analogy is pool (billiards). I’m no expert, but when you’re lining up a shot, it’s key to think about where the shot is going to leave the cue ball (the white one), making sure you’re setting yourself up for the next shot.
Let’s say you have a product you plan to sell to teen’s and mom’s. Who do you sell to first? Though they spend a lot of time in minivans together, teens generally don’t want to be using their mom’s product (so teen’s). In summary, here are three key questions to ask yourself:
0. Are early adopters relevant for your situation?
1. How do early adopters differ within your existing persona definitions?
2. How will you locate early adopters?
3. How will the early adopters help you transition to your next segment(s)?
So, how do you actually go talk to these real people that represent your personas? The right recipe will differ between topics and subjects but here are a few ideas that I’ve found are broadly applicable:
|Question Format||Example Questions (Enable Quiz)|
|Tell me about [yourself in the role of the persona]?||Tell me about being an HR manager?
How did you choose that line of work? Why?
What do you most, least like about the job?
What are the hardest, easiest parts of the job?
I’ve heard [x]- does that apply to you?
|Tell me about [your area of interest]?||Do you do screen new candidates? If not, who?
Can you tell me about the last time? What was the trigger?
Who else was involved? What was it like?
|Tell me your thoughts about [area]?||Where do you learn what’s new? What others do?
Who do you think is doing it right?
How did you make your last decision?
|What do you see in [area]?||Where do you learn what’s new? What others do?
Who do you think is doing it right?
How did you make your last decision?
|How do you feel about [area]?||What motivates you? What parts of it are most rewarding? Why?
Tell me about the last time?
What would it be like in your perfect world?
|What do you do in [area]?||Would you show me your interview guide?
What the vetting process was like on the last few candidates?
Rather than buying into the fiction of the eureka! moment, you’ll increase your odds of success if you first identify which problems (jobs, desires, etc.) are important to your target persona.
The trick is you can’t just ask them directly. If you ask someone ‘Would you like [xyz] product?’ or ‘Is [xyz] a problem for you?’, you’ll almost definitely get a ‘yes’. People are nice and they don’t want to argue with you.
There’s a great design thinking urban legend about observational learning. Sony held a focus group about a new yellow Walkman they were introducing. One of the organizers asked ‘How do you like this yellow Walkman?’. Everyone in the focus group said ‘Great! Love it! So sporty! So different!’. The other organizer had the foresight to put two opposing piles of Walkman’s on the way out and everyone in the focus group was free to take one. One pile had black Walkman’s; the other had yellow Walkman’s. Guess what? Everyone took the black one! Crazy, right?
People will tell you what you want to hear; they’re nice. The design thinker who put out the piles of Walkman’s had the right idea and they got what they deserved- high quality observational learning. The other party got what they wanted: an answer that everyone liked the yellow Walkman. But that data was wrong and could lead them in the wrong direction.
Observational learning is best, but you can ask questions. You can ask questions about facts, about things that have actually happened: ‘How many times did you buy potatoes last month?’ and you’ll get pretty reliable information. You can ask questions about how people feel: ‘How do you feel when you go to the dentist?’ and you’ll get pretty good information as well.
But if you ask people speculative questions about things they might hypothetically like, you’ll probably get ‘yellow Walkman data’. Here’s a checklist to help you qualify how well you understand the nature and importance of your persona’s problems and the tightly related question of their current alternatives to address that problem scenario:
CHECKLIST: PROBLEM HYPOTHESIS
|You’ve identified at least one discrete problem (job, desire, etc.)||Can you describe it in a sentence?
Do others get it?
Can you identify current alternatives?
|✔︎||The problem is important||Do subjects mention it unprompted in discovery interviews?
Do they respond to solicitation (see also value and customer creation hypotheses)?
|✔︎||You understand current alternatives||Have you seen them in action?
Do you have ‘artifacts’ (spreadsheets, photos, posts, notes, whiteboard scribbles, screen shots)?
Here are some ideas on questions you an ask interview subjects to develop your problem hypothesis while avoiding ‘yellow walkman data’.
|Question Format||Example Questions (Enable Quiz)|
|What are the top  hardest things about [area of interest]?||What are the top 5 most difficult things about making good tech hires? Why?|
|How do you currently [operate in area of interest- if you don’t have that yet]? OR Here’s what I got on [x]- is that right?||How do you currently screen for technical skill sets?Who does what?How does that work?|
|What’s [difficult, annoying] about [area of interest]?||What’s difficult about screening technical candidates?How do you validate they have the right skill set?
How are the actual outcomes? Examples?
|What are the top 5 things you want to do better this year in [general area of interest]?||What are the top 5 things you want to do better in technical recruiting and hiring?|
|Why is/isn’t [your specific area of interest on that list]?||Why is/isn’t screening for technical candidates on that list?|
The value hypothesis is a kind of ‘end of the loop’ for iterative product development. It’s very difficult to get meaningful data on this from interviews (see the Yellow Walkman Story above). Observational learning is the best practice here, but that doesn’t mean you need full working product.
Popularized by the Lean Startup movement, quick and inexpensive ‘product proxies’ are an increasingly popular way to test and validate (or invalidate) a Value Hypothesis. This might mean pre-selling the product by hand or through a Google AdWords campaign and measuring sign-up’s, it might mean manually providing the customer experience you want to automate with software.
In the example below, our fictional company has the idea to introduce a talking bicycle compass to help cyclists of various stripes stay on course and understand their distance and timing as they cycle. With the old way of doing things, we’d write a business plan, try to build the perfect product with optimized costs and distribution and then hope we succeed after spending all that time and money.
In the new way of doing things, we’d start with observation learning, creating validated personas and problem scenarios. If we thought we had a proposition for one of those that was compelling vs. the alternatives, we’d build a product proxy to test that our Value Hypothesis. (In Lean Startup, this is called a Minimum Viable Product, MVP.).
For example, we might find some cyclists that map to our key persona(s), duct tape a compass, mic, and iphone to their bike, watch them on GPS and manually provide them directions and distances. A scalable business model? No, but that’s not the point. The point is to learn whether anyone cares about our key value propositions so we don’t waste time and money on a product no one wants. That’s the objective of validating your Value Hypothesis.
For more on this, see the curriculum on Lean Startup.
Once you’ve validated a ‘product/market fit’, being able to predictably sell a given proposition to a given persona, you’ll want to tune your growth recipes. Depending on the nature of your customer relationships and channels, the recipes you’ll want to test will differ. Here are three general tips on making constructive progress in this hypothesis area:
1. Divide & Conquer
In order to make the problem soluble for innovative approaches and evidence-based progress, it’s important to divide the process up into manageable phases. I like the AIDAOR framework we reviewed above (see storyboard on customer journey). Here are notes on how to look at customer creation through that lens:
Attention: This step will include your lead sources, which might be Google AdWords, various types of traditional media, purchased lists, to name a few sources. How economical are these at achieving basic visibility with the target personas?
Interest: In this step, you’re connecting with the customer’s understanding of their problem scenario(s) and presenting your proposition. This would be where you test different messages, copy, creative.
Desire: What emotional drivers are causing the customer to act? To a certain extent, you can measure this along with the item above. In practice, I find it difficult (though important) to acquire meaningful data on this from any other source than interviewing customers after the fact. For example, where you can look at click through or sales in a region with certain copy and you may have assumptions about the emotional drivers that copy connected with, you don’t really know that unless you’re talking to an actual subject.
Action: What are the minimum set of actions the customer has to take to enjoy a reward from using your product? Many otherwise successful product programs drop the ball here. If you’re seeing shopping cart or sign-up abandonment, customers canceling or never completing a contract, that’s an indication your issue in on the Action step.
Onboarding: Beyond basic usage or trial, are customers continuing to use the product? This step is particularly important if your product requires substantial investment to become fully useful to the user. For example, with Facebook the onboarding step is a user filling out their social graph. With Salesforce.com it’s making a habit of using the app as the main repository of contacts and calendar events, evidenced by regular login’s.
Retention: Are customers coming back after they’re full online with the product? Telling others? Upgrading to higher service or purchase levels? Why are why not? A lot of students struggle with Onboarding vs. Retention. The difference is when you have a set of things the user needs to do to fully start using the product: if they haven’t done that yet, you’re in the Onboarding phase still. If they have, you’re on to retention. That said, if you’re finding the difference confusing and not useful, it’s find to blend them together.
2. Stay Methodical, Stay Measurable
We tend to measure our efficiency locally in our little corner of the world. In the moment, it can be more gratifying to work hard than to do the set up to work smart. I’ll freely admit that it is for me and I’m constantly forcing myself to work smarter.
Customers are people are people are complicated. Organizing your customer creation work and investments as discrete, measurable experiments takes a lot of work, but it’s better than toiling away (or throwing money) at a recipe that may be many times less effective than an alternative.
3. Maintain Perspective
Structuring your customer creation sequentially and running structured experiments to arrive at what’s effective is a great way to improve your customer creation. Anchoring all those experiments to your understanding of the target personas & problem scenarios is even better- that perspective and intuition will increase the odds you arrive at profitable recipes.
The last thing you want is for your usability testing to end up a pro forma exercise with professional subjects that are over-coached. Personas and the related work we discussed here will help you avoid that in 4 key ways.
1. Strategy Before Tactics
There’s no point in testing the usability of a feature or product no one wants. Personas, their linkage with problem scenarios and the discovery process we’ve walked through above will help you avoid that. There’s a reason why this hypothesis area came last- it should be the fine tuning on top of a foundation where you’ve validated personas, problem scenarios and the attractiveness (or at least plausability) of your value proposition.
2. Selecting Useful Subjects
We’re busy and approaching strangers is awkward and time consuming. There’s a natural bias toward selecting user testing subjects that are easy to engage and work with vs. making sure you’re selecting subjects that reflect your target user. Personas are a good way to systematically validate the relevance of your test subjects.
3. Understanding Modalities
When your user engages with your product, are they comfortably seated in a cubicle with a big huge Mac monitor? Or do they have one hand in a jar of mayonaise and the other one toggling between a phone, a cash register, their purse, and dozen other spots in the space of 10 minutes. Personas and the discovery process around them will help you build around the user’s actual situation, increasing your product’s appeal and relevance.
4. Maintaining Perspective
It’s easy to get wrapped up in small (but importantant) victories that A/B testing and incremental enhancements can create. It’s also important to keep an eye on the bigger picture and make sure you understand what’s really making your user tick. Quality personas help here as well, complementing your tactical usability work.
For tutorials and templates on doing usability testing, please see: The Customer Discovery Handbook.
Personas & Lean/Lean Startup
In lean, we look at how to avoid waste by focusing on facts and validated learning, creating ‘pull’ for better solutions and processes instead of ‘pushing’ them from the top down. The Lean Startup movement is specifically focused on the need to be highly empirical and work in small batches with explicit success criteria to avoid wasting time & money on something no one wants. Personas and the discipline of design thinking deals with understanding what makes users tick. We look at how to develop empathy for users and apply directed creativity against that empathy.
Most of what we’ve covered here falls into the rubric of ‘design thinking’, but I’ve overlaid a scientific, empirical process to give you a more actionable, reliable set of steps. That’s the idea, anyway! Lean Startup doesn’t really prescribe the product design and ideation process itself and design thinking doesn’t really prescribe a process for focusing and validating your work. In this way, they complement each other.
For more on Lean Startup, see this curriculum item: Your Lean Startup.
Personas & Agile
Agile describes a set of ideas on how teams can produce better product working together in small batches with inputs that are highly descriptive but not overly prescriptive. Those inputs are user stories and they have this format:
As a [persona],
I want to [do something]
so that I can [derive a benefit]
You can see where personas slot into those inputs. Quality personas are key to providing the kind of smart, discussable, actionable, testable inputs that make agile function well.
Just a reminder: those stories aren’t intended (by the discipline) to be used as specifications or requirements. The idea is that they’re inputs to regular, substantial discussions you as the author of the stories and design thinker are having with the implementation team.
As you can see in the above section ‘Personas: When and why?’, ideally everything you’re developing in product or promotion you can tie back to a user story which ties back to a validated customer problem scenario which is linked to a validated persona.
That doesn’t guarantee success, but it does guarantee that you’ll know if what you’re doing is effective and that if it isn’t, you have some learning on why it didn’t work which should help you iterate in the right direction. For more on Lean Startup, see this curriculum item: Your Best Agile User Story.
Summarizing the ‘Personas in 4 Steps‘ section above, here are a few notes:
1. Define and Draft: Do your best to write down all the personas you can think of and then detail the ones you think are important. See the Personas Template for a place to organize your notes. This will help you focus and motivate your discovery work in the field.
2. Validate & Refine: Now go out into the real world where your personas exist to observe and interview. Grind through your hypotheses.
3. Test Drive: Use your personas to make decisions on what to build and how to promote it. Are they answering the right questions? If not, why not and how you can put them in a position to do that?
4. Maintain & Revise: They’re always a work in progress. My advice is make them highly visible (Google Doc’s works well) and revise regularly as you continue to learn about your users and customers.
For tutorials and templates on developing personas and doing design research, please see: The Customer Discovery Handbook.
Reference A: Example Personas & Problem Scenarios
This section presents a set of example personas and problem scenarios based on the customers of a fictional company, ‘Enable Quiz‘ (same one I use in the book). These support a related tutorial and template.
For a template you can use to create your own (a Google Doc which you can download as MS Word or copy to your domain), try this: PERSONAS TEMPLATE.
Helen the HR Manager
Helen’s been on the job in HR for 10+ years. She knows the routine but she’s never gotten particularly comfortable with the technical topics her managers cover. She’d like to know more, but a lot of her day is taken up with fairly standard issues like benefits management, vetting employee situations, and setting up infrastructure for new hires. She feels a little stuck in the admin area- facilities, accounting, etc. She’s like to engage more in the other functional areas of the business. Helen’s job in terms of hiring is to help the functional manager write the job description, identify channels for recruitment, and perform initial candidate screening.
She usually has minimal domain knowledge, so she’s getting the functional manager to give them the detail they need to screen for any specific qualifications. That helps but it’s kind of arbitrary. The system for getting the list is unstructured and highly imperfect. From her point of view, a more systematic ready-to-go system for screening candidates and passing validated screening information to the functional manager would be great. Bad hires are Helen’s least favorite part of the job- it’s a really unfortunate thing for the hire as well as the company. Unfortunately, she has little visibility into whether a hire will work out.
She does the screening and passes the recruit for the functional managers for further screening. Having a more systematic view of why hires don’t work would be highly desirable but she hasn’t gotten a lot of traction with the functional managers on doing those post-mortems. The HR department may or may not be involved in ongoing skills management for existing employees. However, it will almost always be involved in employee assessment for anything financial, such as raises or bonuses. If the functional managers use a quiz to determine a raise or bonus (particularly if the HR manager initially created the quiz as an objective criteria), Helen’s likely to be involved in the administration and/or review of the results. Helen likely pays the bills for Enable Quiz, especially in a larger company.
|Thinks||Helen thinks the hiring process should be so much better- more systematic, fewer bad hires. Professional development is something they’ve identified that they want to do better, but the functional managers aren’t engaged enough to get the whole thing started.|
|Sees||Helen is at the tail end of every bad hire and sees the damage it does to the employee and company, alike. Helen sees that online learning has rocketed forward in the last few years. If someone wants to learn a specific skill, there’s a number of high quality options online, many of them free. They just need a way to help employees organize select into these courses.|
|Feels||Helen feels like crap whenever they have to let someone go. She hates it. The employee hates it. The manager hates it. It’s incredibly destructive and de-motivating for everyone involved. Helen would love to be more involved, more included in functional skills evaluation and improvement. She’s love to have a success story to talk about. Most HR departments don’t do a whole lot in this area.|
|Does||Helen’s relatively responsive to new ideas, particularly if someone knowledgeable is willing to come in and talk about it. If she likes it, she’ll bring it to the functional managers, who are usually the ultimate decision makers since without their support she can’t get the system online and working. Post-sale, Helen will help keep the program organized, moving, and otherwise on the functional managers radar. All this is predicated on Helen being equipped with the right messages, facts, and best practices to make the purchase and use of Enable Quiz effective.|
|Problem Scenarios||Current Alternatives||Value Propositions|
|Helen doesn’t have a software engineering background, so it’s hard for her to screen engineering candidates. She ends up sending the functional manager too many unqualified candidates.||She calls references and mostly ends up taking their word for it.||We’ll offer her a new capability for meaningful screening of technical candidates, increasing % of successful hires and lowering Frank the Functional Manager’s workload on recruiting.|
|She’d like to know more about the key skill sets their company requires so she can be more focused and creative about finding good candidates. But it’s hard to sort out. She’s not that familiar with the terms and concepts, and they overlap and change.||Right now she just gets lists from the Functional Manager and basically passes them through (to job postings, etc.).||A good substitute might be having a nice simple menu of topics the functional managers can choose from and re-route back to the HR manager to set up screening for new candidates.|
|She’s love to do a better, quicker, more definitive job screening new candidates.||Right now, she calls references or just takes their word for it on skill sets and background.||With Enable Quiz, she could easily generate and administer a quiz for the candidates and do a better job on screening.|
|She’d really like to put a company-wide professional development program in place. A few of her peers at bigger companies are doing it and the employees love it. Vendors have come in to see her with various programs but she doesn’t have the functional expertise to say which ones are a good fit for which part of the company.||Right now she just works with the functional managers if she can convince them to do something on a case-by-case basis.||Presenting the quiz application as an entry point for the HR manager to make it easy for the functional manager to assess a starting point for a skills management program might be a good way to deliver on this problem scenario.|
Frank the Functional Manager
Frank’s been a technical manager for the last 8 years. He started out as an individual contributor in development, then running a technical operations group and after that a product development team. He’s got the team down to a predictable rhythm but he still spends most of his time interfacing with other departments that need things from his group. He’s learned that recruiting is one of his most important success factors, but still spends far less time on it than he’d like. chronically under invest their time in recruiting.
In terms of hiring, his job is to write up a job description for HR, coaching them on how to screen candidates. Screening candidates, even just the resumes, takes up a lot of his time and it often ends up meaning that he delays interviewing candidates for a week or two longer than he’d like. Something that would give him a structured, comparable criteria for looking at new hires would be helpful. Bad hires happen. Some are surprises, some just don’t fit in with the team. Frank admits the surprises shouldn’t happen- he and his team should have the ability to screen new hires to make sure they have the right skill sets. Anything that could prevent that would be of interest to Frank. Frank would like to get a more systematic view of where his team is at on key skill sets.
He has a general sense but he has too many people to know where everyone is on everything. Plus, there are new technologies out there where Frank isn’t that well up to speed. There may be some hidden gems and opportunities out there. Anything that would help Frank get a sense of where everyone is would be welcome.
|Thinks||Frank knows he should spend more time on quality recruiting and professional development. He plans to- it’s on his list. It’s a stitch in time saves nine thing- the time he spends on managing around various skills deficits would be much better invested in tighter up front evaluations and a more systematic approach to skills to development.|
|Sees||Frank sees big gaps in what he was hoping certain staff would be able to do and what they actually do. He works around it, fixes it when he can, it’s part of his job.|
|Feels||When Frank makes someone a stronger contributor than they were when they started with him, he feels good. Frank’s never gotten a lot from HR other than rules and paperork he has to do- he doesn’t seem them as a strategic asset for helping him do what he wants to do.Frank likes programs, systems- if he can see something that way he’s much more inclined to get bought in.|
|Does||Frank gets busy and drops the ball. A little coaxing from HR is OK if he sees the value. Too much and he gets annoyed and he’ll be much less likely to use the system. He is responsive to direct contact from knowledgeable coaches (from Enable Quiz).|
|Problem Scenarios||Current Alternatives||Value Propositions|
|Frank feels recruiting’s one of his most important success factors, but he feels like he’s chronically under invest his time in recruiting.||spend more time- which isn’t working well for him||See below but better screening would drastically cut his workload in this area|
|Too many poorly screened resumes and candidates without the right skill sets consume a lot of time they’re rather invest in getting to know qualified candidates better and also just abbreviating the process.||educate HR better- but this is difficult and not reliable as a solution||Having quiz scores for key topics come to him with screened resumes is something he’d like A LOT, particularly when he has a bunch of hires to make.|
|Candidates will sometimes ‘exaggerate’ on their resumes. For some, that’s an implicit promise to make up the difference in their own time. For others, it’s just plain misleading. He’d prefer the facts.||Ask more probing questions- but topically that’s a lot of ground to cover and he doesn’t want to seem like a jerk.||Getting a straight, clinical view on skill sets via a simple quiz is a much simpler alternative.|
|Frank knows there’s nothing better he could do to increase performance and retention than to get better professional development in place. He has ideas but he’s just not able to get there with all his operational priorities.||Make the time to put together a program- but this is hard and there’ a lot of work to do.||What if we used the skills taxonomy and quizzes to help them identify where they’d like to be vs. where they are? What if we made that easy?We at Enable Quiz don’t have all the solutions in terms of learning resources but there are items out there that we could reference. The main thing is to make the whole thing easy for the functional manager.|
Chris the Candidate
Chris has been on the workforce for seven years in a variety of roles. He wants to be challenged and work with smart people. He gets the basic idea on the key topics but, hey, we all fudge a little, don’t we? As an engineer, most jobs come relatively easy given the shortage of supply. Paradoxically, the harder he has to work to land a position, the better he regards the company and the position he’s won.
|Thinks||He wants to work with a strong team. He learns a lot and that makes the work more enjoyable. The opposite is that the team is weak and he’s going to have to carry people- he doesn’t like that.|
|Sees||Chris sees an Enable Quiz user (for recruitment) taking the position seriously and filtering out the kind of people he wouldn’t want to work with anyway.|
|Feels||Chris spends a lot of time on work. It may be his main source of fulfillment. He wants to be part of a club that’s hard to join.|
|Does||Chris is eager to see what the firm thinks of him and how he did on the quiz.|
Since the interview candidate is sort of an involuntary one-time user, detailed problem scenarios aren’t really a clean fit. Nevertheless, we took a shot to see how it would look.
|Problem Scenarios||Current Alternatives||Value Propositions|
|Chris goes to a lot of interviews. It’s not always clear what exactly’s expected from a skill set perspective.||He tries to do a good job of asking questions but doesn’t want to seem pushy. Plus, not everyone’s all that organized during interviews.||Just the topic list from the quiz would be a good, standard disposition of what’s required.|
|If the company is small and/or new, Chris often doesn’t have a good sense of whether he’s going to have a great learning experience, which is something that really drives him.||There really isn’t a good, reliable way for Chris to ascertain this during interviews. If he’s talking to junior folks, he can ask, and once in awhile he gets a good answer.||The quiz is a good signal that they have specific expectations about skill sets. Pairing that with a skills development program for the current staff would be a great way to signal to recruits the hiring company’s commitment to professional development.|
Steve the Staff Member
Steve’s been on the job as a consulting engineer for two years. Most of the time he’s head down working on customer deliverables. He’s been doing a solid job but is curious about what it would take to broaden his horizons some. He also doesn’t see anything wrong with a little friendly competition- it keeps the job more interesting. He came to the company through a technical recruiter and she has been in touch about other opportunities. Steve likes what he’s doing and his team, but he does need to feel like he’s growing to stick around.
|Thinks||Steve’s early in his career and he knows he wants to be part of a success and a place that has a reputation for running a good program. He’s running around fulfilling his responsibilities and he knows he’s not spending enough time expanding his skill set.|
|Sees||Steve sees peers that know less and some that know more. He tries to learn from the folks that know a lot but they’re busy. He tries to help out the folks that need help, but he’s busy too.|
|Feels||Steve wants to feel like the company and his manager care about him, that they’re looking out for his best interests and professional development. Because lord knows he doesn’t have time to think about it with his workload.|
|Does||Steve might have a little trepidation about a quiz, especially if there have been layoff’s recently. But if he understands it’s part of a skills development program he’s into it.|
|Problem Scenarios||Current Alternatives||Value Propositions|
|Steve would like management to spend more time on their professional development. It’s important to him professionally that he’s keeping up with new topics and learning core best practices.||They take their own initiative on professional development.||In a profession as skills and accomplishment driven as software dev. and technical operations, a commitment by the employer to professional ed. would be highly valued by employees. This is good for the employer because the market for talent is competitive and getting more from existing staff is known to be an efficient way to increase output.|
|A lot of the work is a loner’s game. Steve gets a little lonely, a little bored on a lot of afternoons.||He loves to answer questions on Stack Overflow- it feels work-ish, at least, and he’s built up quite a reputation for answering questions in his areas of expertise.||The employer could focus some of this energy back into their internal team with a skills audit. Done right, it could create a little friendly competition and ideally some peer mentoring as a follow-up.|
For a full list of Enable Quiz’s learning’s, see section ‘Enable Quiz and Customer Interviews’ in Chapter 1– page 17 in print, just after the end of Table 1.2
Reference B: Personas Template
The following is a Google Doc’s template that you can use online or download as MS Word. It has pre-created tables for Thinks-See-Feel-Do, problem scenarios, etc., which you may find helpful.