3 Common Mistakes in Building User Personas

When businesses are pitching investors, too often you’ll see that slide in their deck describing the target user: a busy suburban mom, trendy college kid, or midlife crisis guy. While the intentions of this approach (innovation-friendly, design-centric) are right, these personas are often stale imitations of what they should be.

personas-montageThe persona is increasingly popular as a more innovation-friendly, design-centric approach to creating and selling products. The basic idea is to humanize your customer. Ask yourself, ‘What kind of shoes would they wear?’. To newcomers, it may not sound like a ‘serious’ approach to product development or marketing, but the reality is that this humanized view of the customer is the most actionable, testable way to build and promote innovative new products.

In this piece, we’ll go through the top 3 mistakes I see when I’m coaching students and advisees and we’ll close with a simple checklist from my Coursera specialization on agile that you can use to create actionable, valuable personas.

3 Common Mistakes

I’ve made all these mistakes- they’re natural, they happen, but they will derail your ability to use personas (and design thinking in general).

1. Selling

The persona is not marketing copy. The persona is an internal asset you use to discuss and decide how to act on the essential realities of your customers. And, by the way, if there isn’t some major dissonance between how things are and how your customer would like them to be, then you may not be building something worthwhile. Side note: Don’t be afraid if that dissonance has to do with your own products. Your job is to innovate from where you are now.

2. Averaging

The persona is not about covering as much ground, profile-wise, as possible. Traditional marketing starts with huge aggregates like ‘males 25-35’ and then segments where it thinks it needs to. Traditional marketing is not working well for innovation. In the design process, we start with observations about the individual and then look at how those might be generalized to product and promotion. Personas are about relating to the individual.

3. Producing

The persona is not a discrete deliverable you produce and then call ‘done’. Rough personas are OK. ‘Shiny’ personas that are created by the design department and made their exclusive domain are pretty much dead on arrival. As good as they may be in part, it’s the ability of the persona to serve as a centerpiece for interdisciplinary collaboration that makes them insightful and durable.

Try using your personas as the centerpiece for a workshop with your support people about where they’re seeing customers run into trouble. The last time I did that I came up with some of the best product refinements I’ve ever invested in.


The best way to think about your personas is as a set of hypotheses- proposed explanations about who your customer is and what makes them tick that you’re constantly refining with observation and data. Here are a few starter items I recommend across the board. You’ll see references to ‘your area of interest’- that’s just the job or habit where your product is relevant.

Hypothesis Experiment
✔︎ 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 much time, money do they invest in your area of interest?

How can you directly or indirectly validate the above?

✔︎ You’ve identified at least one discrete problem (job, desire, etc.) you can solve. 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)?

Best wishes and best of luck in your work with personas. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter (where I’m @cowanSF).