Personas for Design, Development, & Growth



personas-blockGood products and valuable innovation happen when you understand your customer and what matters to them. Personas and the discovery work that goes with creating them is a generally accepted means to create that understanding.

After reading this guide and trying out the related practice you will be able to:

  1. Identify when and where personas are a useful tool for product development and product promotion
  2. Design and conduct discovery work to create well validated personas
  3. Drive interdisciplinary collaboration using personas

Persona?

What is a (useful) persona?

The best way to think about a persona is as a kind of approach. I realize you were probably expecting something more prescriptive, but bear with me (or don’t- I mean, it is up to you).

I see teams all the time that trying to create the perfect, shiny persona so they can call it’ done’. There’s an instinct for good workmanship there that’s admirable, but the reality is that the questions you’ll need to answer with personas are constantly evolving and so should your understanding of your personas. I’ll take a Google Doc that the team can edit over a shiny wall poster any day.

A high functioning team or user of a persona will use them constantly and formally as well as informally. For example, let’s say your a product gal (or guy) in a hallway conversation with an account manager. They tell you they were just at a customer site and realized it would be really cool if the customer could just [do some new thing that you don’t entirely understand].  Product gal doesn’t say yes or no, but rather asks for more background about who this persona is and what they’re trying to do, so they can think about both the relevance of this information as well as how they might approach a solution. Bravo product gal (or guy)!

A Few Persona Fundamentals

All that said, there is a thing that’s what I’ll call a formal or explicit persona and I generally think they should have these four elements:

  1. A Name
    They have a name- I like the convention ‘[first name] the [role]’, so ‘Andrea the Auditor’ or ‘Dave the Dispatcher’.
  2. A Screener
    Always start with a screening question you can use to identify subjects- even if you’re not about to interview any, it would help make sure your persona is adequately specific.  For example, in the case of ‘Andrea the Auditor’ the screener might be ‘How many accounting audits have you completed in the last three months?’. 
  3. A Description
    This general description introduces the persona and answers questions like ‘Who are they?’ and ‘What makes them tick?’. The ‘Day in the Life’ tool is a good way to step through this. Photos are super helpful since, you know, a picture is worth 1k words.
  4. A Perspective
    As touchy-feely as they may seem, personas are a design tool, which means their main purpose is to help you do some job (or several jobs) better. I like the use the popular ‘Think See Feel Do’ points to help refine and focus the perspective we suppose the persona has in a way that’s more operational.

If you want to check out more fully articulated examples, feel free to skip down the Example A (Startup) and Example B (Enterprise IT) below.

What isn’t a (useful) persona?

business-guyIn college marketing classes and/or watching 80’s movies (I’ve seen 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/gal? How would you figure out what innovative new product or feature he or she might like? The reality is that those profiles aren’t very discussable, actionable or testable. Encouraged in part by the kind of research corporations buy and the way they’re used to purchasing traditional media, they perpetuate useless arguments inside conference rooms and encourage bland products and bland marketing that nobody particularly likes.

In the design world, we make observations about the individual and then look at how we can expand those into creative solutions. Personas are how much of that observation and insight is encapsulated to make it vivid, testable, and durable for work you do weeks, months, or years after you create the persona.

Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean personas are the opposite of data. I teach at UVA Darden and some of this most exciting work we’re doing is on helping students synthesize better insights using both the ‘small data’ of personas and the big data that’s amenable to machine intelligence. As any practicing scientist will tell you, the best way to get a useful experimental result is to go in with a strong hypothesis. Personas are a way of developing better hypotheses.

Final note: If you’re a fan of Clayton Christiansen’s work on jobs-to-be-done, you may remember that in some of his talks (in particular with the the milkshake example) he talks about how personas make a mess of marketing. I would say that’s more applicable to this bland/generic take on personas. The methods you’ll learn about here and in the piece on Problem Scenarios, which are basically equivalent to job-to-be-done, are consistent with design thinking and this more observational approach to understanding the customer.

Five Things You Can do with Personas

When do you create a persona?

I advise having relevant personas on hand at the beginning of any project. If you don’t have them, block off 30-60 minutes and draft a few as a first step. Good design is about focus, and if you don’t know who you’re building for (or promoting to) it’s impossible to achieve.

In the Venture Design process, personas are the first item. The reason for this is that they’re the basis for deciding what problems (jobs) are important, finding subjects to test your assumptions, and drafting user user stories for development, among other things.

All that said, here are five specific things you can do better with personas.

1. Make Better a Product/Offering

Let’s say there are these five fundamental jobs in the business of making stuff (in digital):

Software-Development-Business-v4-1000px

Here are a few questions you can expect your personas to help you answer (from the bottom job moving up to the top):

PROPOSITION DESIGN

What problems (jobs, desires, etc.) are at the top of this personas list?

Which of the above has the greatest tension between how things are vs. how the personas would like them to be?

How will we make the customer aware of our new [product, feature]?

How might we test whether they actually care about our proposition (ideally before we go make stuff)?

How often would we expect them to use our new [product, feature]?

What metrics would constitute success?

What will we do if we see that the proposition isn’t resonating with them?

PRODUCT/SYSTEM SUPPORT
How much explanation is required for our user to be successful with our [product, feature]?

How will we guide them to the above? How will we know if it’s working?

How do we instrument the right observations into our support process so we’re making the product easier?

PRODUCT DESIGN
Who is our user?

Based on products they actually use, what interface patterns and comparables would be most relevant to the interface we want to build?

How will they encounter this (product, feature)? How often will they use it? When? Before and after what?

What screeners should we use in finding subjects for usability testing?

SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT
What happy paths and headline modalities should we prioritize in our test plan (or CI suite)?

I don’t understand this design. How did we learn/decide that’s a good thing for the user? How will we know if it is?

2. Execute Better Promotion/Growth

For this one, I thought I’d organize the questions you can answer with your personas around the Growth Hacking Canvas– it covers some of the big bases within an integrated marketing program:

growth-hacking-canvas-v1

Here are a few questions you can expect your personas to help you answer around the job of selling stuff:

PERSONAS & SEGMENTS
Who are our personas? What makes them tick?

What do think think, see, feel, and do in our area of interest? (didn’t have to dig too deep for those!)

VALUE PROPOSITIONS
What problems (be those jobs, desires, habits) are important to our customers?

What alternatives do they have today? What do they like vs. not like about those?

What are we specifically doing that’s better? Why do they prefer our proposition?

BRAND EXPERIENCES
How does the customer (or user) encounter our brand? What are the touch points?

NOTE: I particularly recommend paying attention to touch points outside the ‘happy path’- support, etc.

How are we doing on those? What are they like for the customer?

BRANDING
What do our customers actually think about/associate with our brand?

What do they think about our competitive alternatives?

LEXICON
What words and phrases does our customer actually use to talk about our area?

(Are we using those phrases? Are we ranking for them in Google?)

ORGANIC CHANNELS
Where do our personas go to find information and talk about our topic of interest?

ASSETS, ACTIVITIES, PAID CHANNELS, & PROMO INFRASTRUCTURE
These don’t typically have obvious, direct relationships to personas, so I’ll skip them. (Please comment below if you disagree!)

For more on this, check out: The Growth Hacking Canvas.

3. Write Better User Stories

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. The inputs and focal point about what to build are user stories and they have this format:
User-Stories-v4As a [persona],
I want to [do something]
so that I can [derive a benefit]

You can see where personas slot into those inputs. Like writing anything else, you want to make sure you understand your subject and have some compelling ideas about them. Quality personas are key to providing the kind of smart, discussable, actionable, testable inputs that make agile function well.

This is kind of a subset of #1/making better product, but I wanted to call special attention it since this activity is so ubiquitous. For more on user stories, see: Your Best Agile User Story.

4. Run Better Lean Startup Experiments

Lean Startup with Design ThinkingIn 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.

Talk to any practicing scientist about how to achieve a valuable experimental result, and I’d be surprised if they don’t mention starting with a strong hypothesis. Drafting personas and conducting customer discovery interviews help you identify ideas that are validated to matter to customers. This in turns help you start your experiments with stronger hypotheses. That will make your practice of Lean Startup run much better.

For more on Lean Startup, see: Your Lean Startup.

5. Facilitate Better Interdisciplinary Collaboration

When I see a high-functioning team that’s killing it on innovation, I see an interdisciplinary team. There are a minimum of hand-off’s and maximum of meaningful collaboration. Personas play a central role, anchoring the team’s point of view on what they’re making and how they’re selling it:
personas-whyA high-functioning team is constantly
a) using personas to create better, more testable ideas and then
b) encapsulating what they learn from testing those ideas back into their personas.

But I didn’t put this section here to sell you on personas. While personas are generally useful, your immediate purposes do matter- there’s no such thing as a single, ‘great’ persona that will automatically work well for everything.

Given this, it is useful to begin with an end in mind when you start drafting your personas, a set of questions you want to be able to answer with your personas. This doesn’t mean the personas won’t be useful for other work- it just means you’ll be best off focusing them on helping you with the job you have now.

Problem Scenarios: A Personas Best Friend

A Problem Scenario is a general statement of something a persona wants to do. It’s not necessarily something they would literally refer to as a ‘problem’. A very similar concept is the ‘job to be done’, if you’re familiar with that. The following diagram summarizes this framework:
Personas-Problem-Scenarios-AlternativesThe purpose of a problem scenarios is to discover what really matters to your customer in the terms they use to think about their ‘problem’ (or need, task, job, desire, habit … however they might refer to it) vs. the terms you use to think about your solution. For obvious reasons, looking at things this way is more innovation-friendly.

For the most part, I recommend drafting and researching your problem scenarios in parallel with your personas and you’ll hear them referenced frequently in the material that follows. For purposes of decomposition and just generally not making this piece too long, I’ve moved the more detailed material on Problem Scenarios to a related page: Needfinding with Problem Scenarios.

How do you answer questions with a persona?

The most important thing is to begin with an end in mind. If you’re developing a new product and using the Venture Design process, this might just be exploring a set of customers for a new idea. Equally valid might be a design challenge from marketing like ‘How might we better understand our customers so we can better focus and measure our next batch of marketing investments?’.

The next most important thing is just to put pen to paper and get started. Don’t overthink it, but do be ready to revise it. That said, here is a view on the way I recommend teams generally approach the use of personas:

personas-process-v3

As I mentioned, I like to start by drafting from what I know (step 02). There’s a perspective that you should do interviews first to avoid biasing your perspective, but what I find is that: a) if teams don’t draft, they don’t really know what they want to learn when they interview subjects and b) if you’re not ready to revise your draft, you’re probably not going to end up with highly useful personas anyway.

After drafting, you’ll probably have a strong sense of all the things you don’t actually know about this persona and/or suspect you know but haven’t actually observed. This is a great time to continue the process and move to drafting your interview guide (step 03). We’ll step through this in more detail in the section ‘Talking to Customers’, but basically this is a progression of open-ended questions you’ll use when you’re talking to subjects that map to your persona(s). From there, you go talk to subjects (step 05) and iterate on your draft.

There is also the question of whether you want to do Day in the Life. You’ll probably want to decide this in advance since it requires getting photos from your subjects (as always, be sure to get appropriate releases/permissions).

Drafting Personas

How do I get started?

personas-templateIf you’re dying to get started, here’s a personas template in Google Doc’s- you can copy it to your Google account (File >> Make a Copy) or download it as a Microsoft Word file (File >> Download As). If you want more ideas on how to better create and use personas, come on back anytime.

Note: I recommend drafting your problem scenarios in parallel.

Why draft before you go out and do interviews?

I like to start by drafting, particularly with teams that are new to using personas or personas of the type you’re seeing in the examples. I find that it a) creates clarify and focus around the deliverables for research and b) helps the team (and myself) see how little we really know about the specifics, motivating the research. Much better designers than myself will point out the danger of biasing the team by doing this in advance of talking to subjects. I’ve found the benefits outweigh the costs. You may find otherwise and switching up the order of this process some is no big deal.

What do I say about the persona?

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.Plastic Persona

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. Organic-Persona-v4

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.

How do I get started?

If you’re having trouble putting pen to paper, think through a day in this persona’s life. What’s the first thing (in your area) they think about after they wake up in the morning? What about before they go to bed? What happens in between? What motivates them? Demotivates them?

All that said- less is more. If this is your first draft, your job is to think about what you know and what you don’t know to focus and motivate you when you go out and talk to a real subjects (customers, users, etc.). Oh- and photos. Find a photo or set of photos you can use. That will really help you keep the persona human.

Below is an example from ‘HVAC in a Hurry’, a fictional company I use in my Coursera course. HVAC standard for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning and that’s what the company does: maintains and repairs HVAC’s for businesses. They’re building an app for the field technicians. Here’s the first paragraph the persona ‘Trent the Technician’ (for the full persona, see Reference B):

EXCERPT FROM
PERSONA

trent-the-technician-smallerTrent’s been an HVAC technician for 7 years; 4 years of that at HinH. After a couple of years off, Trent enrolled in a 2 year program on the advice of a close friend who was doing the same. Getting his first job wasn’t as easy as everyone said- and the money was terrible. But now he’s a senior technician at HinH and the money’s pretty good.

FULL PERSONA

How do I make sure my persona is good?

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, inspired by Bill Wake’s INVEST acronym for thinking about user stories, I offer you the REACT checklist:

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.

Also, you’re creating a persona that represents the customer you have now, not the one you wish you had. Their behaviors should represent what you actually expect to see in the real world, not the behaviors you might want to create with your product.

Does the persona feel like a real person, or just a convenient archetype? Is it based on talking to a substantial number of actual subjects? The Day in the Life exercise is another good tool here.

EXACT If the persona isn’t exact and distinctive, you’re back to the ‘males 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.

Does the persona feel like a real person, or just a convenient archetype? Is it based on talking to a substantial number of actual subjects? The Day in the Life exercise is another good tool here.

ACTIONABLE If the persona doesn’t inform how you sell stuff and build stuff, why bother? The Think-See-Feel-Do checklist (below) 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.

Does the persona do a good job of supplying better, more testable answers to your key questions (see section above on this). 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?

CLEAR 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.
TESTABLE How will you know if you’re right about this persona (because most of the time you won’t be that right on the first go).

Specifically, is the persona specific enough to be testable through discovery interviews? Do you routinely update it with new discoveries you make in the field?

How do I decide which personas to draft?

On specific steps, there are many paths to arrive at quality personas. Here are the general steps I use with students and advisees:

Step 1 Dump List out all the personas you can think of- more is more. Put teach one you can think of on an index card or Post-It. Just name them like ‘Darren the Dad’, ‘Andrea the Accountant’. Make sure you’re covering buyers as well as users.

Output: A set of cards with ideas on personas. If you’re working in a team, compare and discuss (dot vote if you’re into that).
Time: 5-15 minutes

Step 2 Sort Then rank order them in terms of importance. What I usually tell students is ‘If you could only pitch to one persona, which would it be? And then which persona second?’. This doesn’t mean you have to pitch to a buyer- it could be a primary user who isn’t the actual buyer that’s the right first choice.

 

Output: A ranked set of cards with personas

Time: 2-3 minutes

Step 3 Screen When you go out and talk to subjects, you’ll want to have a screening question. This is a simple, factual question with an obvious answer that should clearly tell you if you’re talking to a valid subject or not. For example, if you have a persona for HR managers involved in hiring, a screen question might be:

How many new positions have you recruited for in the last three months?

If it’s more than zero, you have a valid subject. For your top 2-3 personas, create a screener. If you’re struggling, it probably means you should revise your persona to be more specific.

Output: A set of personas with screening questions (and possibly revised definitions)

Time: 5-10 minutes

Step 4 Reality Check Pick your top 2-3 personas and write down at least five specific people who fit the persona. You don’t have to know these people well, but you have to be able to find them. So, your list might have items like ‘Bob Smith’ but also items like ‘Clerk at CVS on Oak Drive’.

If you can’t think of five real people, you either should revise the personas or get started soon on talking to subjects.

Output: A set of personas with (min.) five examples listed on them

Time: 5-10 minutes

Step 4 Draft Now take your top few personas and start drafting. Write up a general description. Try to find a representative photo somewhere. And work through Think-See-Feel-Do (see next section).

For this, I like to use the persona template within the Venture Design template, a Google Doc you can copy and use.

Output: A set of persona drafts.

Time: (variable but less than 30 minutes/personas)

These are the steps for drafting. Following the drafting, you’ll move on to the hugely important task of actually interviewing real subjects and using that insight to revise your personas. We’ll get to that shortly. Next, we’ll step through a popular framework for making sure your personas will be useful for driving action in your particular area.

Focusing Perspective with Think-See-Feel-Do

Think-See-Feel-Do-200pxOnce 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 do 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 want to hit on in your interview guide (we’ll get to interview guides below in the section ‘Talking to Customers’).

THINK

This is your persona’s rational point of view in your area. What you really want to drive to here is the tension between how things are now and how the persona would like them to be. Here are a few example questions you might ask to get at this:
Tell me about how you [do whatever it is your product does]?
Tell me about the last time you [did that]? How did you decide to [do whatever it is]? What was it like?
What are the top 5 hardest things about [doing whatever you do]?
If you could change one thing, what would it be? What about two things?

Here’s an example of from Trent the Technician:

EXCERPT FROM
PERSONA/THINK

Trent thinks the dispatch process should be more systematic to avoid jobs that are far away or not consistent with his expertise. Also, he wonders if there isn’t a better way to stock and distribute parts- that’s a big problem. All this is important because a lot of his time is wasted and he’s paid hourly for jobs.
FULL PERSONA

Notice the tension about Trent’s interaction with dispatch- that is the result of specific answers the subjects supplied to open-ended question like the ones you see above.

SEE

This is a description of how your persona arrived at the point of view you described in Think. What observations and sources of information are relevant in your area? What or who defines success or good practice? Here are a few example questions you might ask a subject to get at this:
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?

Here’s an example from Trent the Technician:

EXCERPT FROM
PERSONA/SEE

Trent sees that a lot of the company’s best talent either goes into business for themselves or goes to work at large clients. They often end up with better hours and better pay- and they get to do things their own way. Sometimes, though, they end up short on business or having to put in long hours to do their own marketing and admin stuff.
FULL PERSONA

FEEL

This is the actual, emotional relevance of the personas thoughts and observations in your area of your interest. This is one takes some practice- talking about emotions between strangers isn’t that normal for most people. Also, using ‘feel’ as a synonym for ‘thinks’ doesn’t count!

I find the best way to get at this is to step the subject through a specific example and then ask them how that (the example) made them feel. Here are a few examples:
Tell me about the last time?
What motivates you? What parts of it are most rewarding? Why?

Here’s an example from Trent the Technician:

EXCERPT FROM
PERSONA/FEEL

When Trent’s sitting in traffic for a job he could have gone to earlier that day in 1/3 the time he feels angry, he feels cheated and like the company doesn’t care.
FULL PERSONA

DO

This one’s important: you need to get at what they actually do in area and how often/how much/with how much money they engage in the activity question. Remember, useful personas should be ‘real’ and this should represent what they do now, not what you wish they would do.

Questions for Trent might be:
How many jobs did you complete last week?
How many required spare parts? How many parts?
How many trips did you have to make to those customers?

Here’s example Do content from Trent:

EXCERPT FROM
PERSONA/DO

Trent works around 45 hours per week and completes 8-15 jobs in a typical week. He’s regularly on his personal iPhone looking up equipment manuals since it’s easier than the company-provided tools.
FULL PERSONA

Drafting Discovery Questions

You’ll want an interview guide for when you sit down with subjects. For a template with these items, see Interview Guide (Venture Design Template).

It’s just a guide- not a questionnaire. You should feel free to skip questions you think aren’t going to move the interview forward and to revise the guide itself as you do your research. Remember, you’ve not trying to create something statistically significant here.

The Screener

Start with a screener. What simple, factual question can you ask a potential subject to be sure they’re relevant? This is more important than it may seem. We have a natural bias to go with subjects that are convenient & comfortable, which can dramatically limit actionable learning. Don’t blame yourself, but do screen yourself!

For example, let’s say we’re interested in problem scenarios around some aspect of network management, with the idea of possibly building an application for network engineers to manage transport elements like routers and switches. We have a persona(s) for the end user that we want to develop and validate. A good screener would be: ‘How many times last week did you log into a switch or router?’.

The Interview Guide

This section describes the creation of a guide for discovery on both your personas and their problem scenarios. While it’s quite practical to handle both at the same time, for focus and organization, I’ve covered Problem Scenarios (very similar to job-to-be-done) in a related guide: Needing with Problem Scenarios.

You’ll notice some repetition in the questions- often it works well to ask the same question different ways. Here’s an example of an interview guide for ‘HVAC In a Hurry’. HVAC in a Hurry is an enterprise that services heating and air conditioning systems for commercial buildings (HVAC stands for ‘heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). They’re building new tools to make their enterprise function better, with an initial focus on their field technicians.

PERSONA HYPOTHESIS

Question Format Example Questions (HVAC in a Hurry)
Tell me about [yourself in the role of the persona]? Tell me about being a tech at HVAC in a Hurry?
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]? What’s the general process for finding out about a new job and completing it?
Can you tell me about your last job?
Who else was involved in getting that job done? How did you all interact?
Tell me your thoughts about [area]? How are things done now vs. how would they work in a perfect world?
What have you seen work well vs. not well on specific jobs?
What’s the best vs. worst job you’ve done recently and why?
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 do you feel about [area]? What motivates you? What parts of it are most rewarding? Why?
Tell me about the last time?
What parts, if any, are demoralizing?
What would it be like in your perfect world?
What do you do in [area]? How many hours did you work last week? Is that typical?
How many customer jobs was that?
What are your favorite tools for getting jobs done, information-wise?

PROBLEM HYPOTHESIS

Question Format Example Questions (Enable Quiz)
What are the top [5] hardest things about [area of interest]? What are the top 5 most difficult things about doing good work? 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 prepare for a new job/dispatch?
Who does what?
How does that work?
What’s [difficult, annoying] about [area of interest]? What’s difficult about making sure you have what you need to finish a job?
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 this year?
Why is/isn’t [your specific area of interest on that list]? Why isn’t [x] on your list?

You may notice that the two parts of the interview guide overlap. That’s OK- particularly if you observe that you’re getting new and different responses between the different forms of the question. Subjects will remember things they wanted to tell you over the course of the interview and they will never understand all the questions exactly the way you intended (that’s just the limitations of human communication).

Deepening Personas through ‘Day in the Life’

To Day in the Life or Not to Day in the Life

‘Day in the Life’ is a technique for adding depth to personas. The basic idea is to sketch out, well, a day in the life of your persona. If you’re going to use the persona a lot and you feel confident it’s one you want to build out, this may be a good additional investment. If you’re not sure and this is your first go with personas, I would probably defer it. If you really need it, you’ll make time to come back to it.

Here’s a tutorial on how to get started: Personas Day in the Life Tutorial.

Warming Things Up with a Day in the Life Exercise

If you do Day in the Life and your research protocol allows for photos, a great exercise is the Day in the Life exercise. 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.

For more, check out: Workshop: Day in the Life.

Finding Subjects

So far, we’ve talked about how to draft/prototype your personas, and that will help your focus in this next step. Because recruiting and interviewing subjects is expensive, it helps to already know what you want your persona to look like. You’ll be more effective recruiting subjects and interviewing them.

If you’re feeling like your draft is ‘pretty close’, try pushing your reset button. Treat your personas like the hypothesis they will always remain. Be ready to revise. People are complicated, and so the persona is always a major simplification. The question is whether that simplification proves useful for helping you make stuff and sell stuff. If I had to pick one variable to use in predicting the strength/usefulness of a team’s personas, it would be how often they edit them.

How do I find subjects to interview?

customer-discovery-bear-foodThe first and most important step is good preparation. I’ve seen lots of energy, time, money, and morale wasted when teams blindly start talking to subjects because they’re told that’s what they should do. The subjects do have your answers, but that’s like saying ‘Go West’. Even if that’s the right direction, if you don’t know where you’re headed, you’ll probably end up as bear food. There are a lot of people you could potentially talk to and a lot of things you could ask them- infinitely more than you have resources for.

The good news is that if you’ve basically followed the tutorial up to this point, you’re in good shape. You’ve brainstormed personas, prioritized them, reality tested them by thinking of real people, done some initial drafting, and created a screener. If you’ve done all that, you’re ready to recruit subjects!

There are a few ways to get subjects. If you’re long on cash, you can get an agency to do it for you. If you’re not, then get creative. If you’re going to make stuff and sell stuff to these people, you should have a good idea of where to find them and how to communicate with them. If you don’t have such an idea, then now is probably a good time to start exploring. What I don’t recommend is getting subjects on CraigsList, etc. Many of those subjects are likely to be ‘pro’s’ or otherwise unlike your target population. Yes, you can screen them to a certain degree with a questionnaire, but that won’t fix the selection bias.

Should you compensate them? Yes, in some fashion. They’re generously giving up their time for your venture. If you’re a startup you probably can’t afford to compensate them at market rates. You should nevertheless present them some token of your appreciation (Starbucks gift card, etc.), acknowledging that it’s just a token and that you’ve appreciated their generosity with their time. Not only is it appropriate and polite, but it will make it much more likely that they help you find other subjects.

When you approach subjects, you don’t need to tell them about what you’re doing, but also don’t be weird or oblique. Instead of telling them about your solution (which they don’t really care about), tell them you’re interested in learning more about the problem area you think is relevant to them (which hopefully they do care about). Framing this in terms of research is accurate and will help put your subjects at ease:
recruiting-subjects-highres

Finally, if you’re planning a design sprint or otherwise want a certain number of subjects by a certain time, plan to approach a lot of potential subjects. The yield from approach to actual interview is usually relatively low.
subjects-funnel-persona
Let’s suppose you can make contact with 12 people/hour. That’s one every 5 minutes. Let’s say 1/3 of those respond and pass your screener- that’s probably high and will vary a lot with how specific your screener is relative your contact environment.. That’s 4 subjects. Let’s say 50% of those ‘close’ for some kind of session; that’s 2. So about 30 minutes a subject. This will vary a lot with situation but you can tune your funnel as you proceed. It will be slower in the very beginning and you can probably increase your efficiency as you get more comfortable.

 

 

Interviewing Subjects

First off, have an interview guide. This will help you budget your time for subjects that are big talkers and work to good answers from subjects that are small talkers. It’s not a questionairre. Feel free to change it as you learn what works and don’t worry about getting structured data you can compare between subjects. For more on creating an interview guide (including a Google Doc’s template), see the personas section of the Customer Discovery Handbook.

Don’t lead the subject. Don’t ask them leading questions, and, in particular, don’t ask the subjects whether or not they want your hypothetical project. They’ll always say ‘yes’ in order to be done with the question and avoid a sales pitch from you.

Move from general questions to more specific ones. If you get a specific answer to a general question, that has much higher evidentiary value than a specific answer to a specific question. Let’s say you’re interviewing an HR manager for an app that helps them better screen candidates for engineering jobs. If you ask ‘Is screening engineering candidates hard?’, he or she will probably just say ‘yes’. However, if you ask ‘What are the top 5 hardest things about your role in recruiting engineers?’ and he or she says ‘Screening the candidates is hard’, that actually tells you the area you’re looking at is on their A-list.

Never, ever, ever, pitch subjects your product, or even advocate a particular point of view. Your job is to learn something from the subject that will allow you to scale an offering to 100 then 1,000, then 10,000, etc. customers. It’s not to sell them something (or worse yet have them tell you what you want to hear).

That said, most subjects will not understand your approach or objective and that will make them uncomfortable. Being forthright with them about what you’re doing is key. Explain to them what you want to learn. That is your objective (not selling). For example, telling an HR manager ‘We’re trying to learn about what’s it’s like for HR managers to recruit technical talent.’ or telling a nurse ‘We’re trying to learn about what it’s like for an oncology nurse to file paperwork.’ is fine and useful.

Recording the session will make them uneasy at first, but most subjects will forget about it in 5 minutes or so. (If you do record them, be sure to abide by applicable laws and regulations.) That said, you’ll likely find you have little time to review these transcripts. Most important is to make notes as you go along and to sit down immediately after the interview and make notes on what you learned, ideas that came to mind.

Avoid interrupting the subject (this will dam up the natural flow of information) but balance that with the time you both have available and the topical coverage you want.

Freely update your interview guide as you learn what’s working. Don’t worry about it making the interviews non-comparable: your goal is not statistical significance. The reason I use a Google Doc for a template is that it eases ad hoc collaboration between team members.

Finally, make sure you evaluate what, if any, paperwork you need. I don’t offer legal advice on this site, but there are some good resources available online.

What do I do with the interviews?

Take great notes and write down your insights right away. The reason why taking great notes is so important is that things you hear from a subject that might seem unimportant to you now might turn out to be very important in 30, 90, 120 days as your point of view evolves.

It’s important to write down your insights because a) you’ll have them b) you’ll think they’re obvious and you’ll totally remember them and then c) you won’t (unless you write them down).

How many subjects is enough? When am I done?

I get this question a lot and while there is an answer, it isn’t exactly in the form of a fixed number of subjects. You’re looking for a convergence of results vs. a fixed sample size. The research you’re doing is qualitative and the variation you’re likely to encounter is probably so layered that your output won’t be subject to the law of large numbers, etc. Have you ever tried the online learning platform Khan Academy? Rather than giving you a quiz with a fixed number of questions, if you get three right in a row, you pass. That’s what you’re looking for with your personas.

What does it really mean to be done? If you reference the process we started with here, the target outcome is that you have a persona or personas that’s able to answer important questions for you. They’re not a fixed form asset like a barrel or a hammer. While they will improve as you exercise them, the real trick is to define the questions you want answered and make sure the personas are doing that for you (see previous section Using Personas for examples of such questions).

Revising & Iterating

At the risk of over communicating this, I’ll just say here that when I see a team that’s using personas effectively, I (so far) have always seen that team doing a lot of iteration and revision. They’re usually managing their personas with Google Docs (or in some cases the MSFT equivalent).

Regarding this step specifically: Make time to sit down and revise your personas right after you finish your interviews- ideally you’re interleaving this activity for maximum focus on the final deliverable.

Personas are the innovators spreadsheet. Everything changes constantly, and the successful innovators uses their personas (and problem scenarios, etc.) to keep track.

Editing/Scrubbing per Research Protocol

Make sure you’ve scrubbed out personal/identifying information that’s not part of your research protocol (not consistent with the release you’re using with subjects, etc.).

Testing Your Personas

First and foremost, it’s great to have a near term task in mind to test and apply your personas- see how they help, see how they’re relevant. They won’t be perfect, but more so than anything else this will help you focus future work on the personas.

Generally speaking, you’re never ‘done’, but the following are good preliminary indicators that for any given project it’s time to move on to the next step.

Checklist: Persona Hypothesis

Sub-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 can you directly or indirectly validate that’s what they do?

Checklist: Problem Hypothesis

Sub-Hypothesis Experiment

✔︎

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)?

Lean Startup with Design ThinkingYour Persona as Hypothesis

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).

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:

The sections that follow ideas on how you might apply personas in four key areas of customer discovery.

For a deeper dive on this, including templates for customer discovery, please see: The Customer Discovery Handbook.

lean-persona-hypothesis Persona Hypothesis Do you know who the customer (or user) really is? What makes them tick?

We’ve kind of been there done that on this one!

lean-problem-hypothesis Problem Hypothesis Have you identified specific jobs, needs the persona actually has? Are those important? What alternatives are they using now?

Same here!

lean-value-hypothesis Value Hypothesis For your key problem scenarios, is your value proposition better enough than the alternatives? 

This is where it gets kind of interesting: having strong personas and problem scenarios is pretty important to focusing and getting actionable results from your Lean Startup type experiments.

lean-customer-creation-hypothesis Usability Hypothesis Is the product easy to use? Are users using it in the way you intended? What does that mean?

Obviously, before you build product you hopefully have strong personas and problem scenarios. Additionally, when testing usability and deciding on UI paradigms, it’s useful to have a user in mind.

lean-customer-creation-hypothesis Growth Hypothesis Do you have a profitable recipe to acquire and retain customers? How can you make that even better? Scale it?

Personas are a great way to blend and amplify interdisciplinary work across product and promotion.

For tutorials and templates on doing usability testing, please see: The Customer Discovery Handbook.

Storyboarding the Customer Journey

Storyboarding is a great way to test and operationalize your understanding of a persona or personas.

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:
customer-acquisition-storyboard--aida-or--example

NOTES BOARD

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.

Customer Acquisition Storyboard-Attention

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.

Customer Acquisition Storyboard-Interest

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.

Customer Acquisition Storyboard-Desire

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.

Customer Acquisition Storyboard-Action

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.

Customer Acquisition Storyboard-Onboarding

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.

Customer Acquisition Storyboard-Retention

For more on storyboarding (including templates and online tools you can use to get started), please see: Storyboarding Tutorial.

 

Example A: Personas & Problem Scenarios from Enable Quiz (Startup)

Because these are part of a pair of case studies (Knowing What Matters, Part 1 and Knowing What Matters, Part 2) where the assignment is to draft and interview guide and then a set of personas and problem scenarios, I’ve moved this material to a separate page: Example Personas, Problem Scenarios, & Interview Guide at Enable Quiz (Startup).

If you’re doing the case studies, don’t visit that page until after you’ve engaged in the applicable class session.

Example B: Personas & Problem Scenarios from HVAC in a Hurry (IT Project)

Trent the Technician

trent-the-technician-smallerTrent’s been an HVAC technician for 7 years; 4 years of that at HinH. After a couple of years off, Trent enrolled in a 2 year program on the advice of a close friend who was doing the same. Getting his first job wasn’t as easy as everyone said- and the money was terrible. But now he’s a senior technician at HinH and the money’s pretty good.

He’s always had a knack for fixing things, probably owing to his concentration, curiosity, and tenacity. He’s never been much for debating or arguing. He likes figuring things out and even more than that he loves coming through for people. More than his billings on a job, that’s what really makes it or breaks it for him- whether the customer is happy and better off or whether they’re confused and frustrated.

His day starts as late as it can- he prefers to sleep in but usually has to get to the office early. He prepares for his jobs and then hits the road as quickly as he can to avoid traffic. If he’s lucky, he has the parts he needs for the job and doesn’t have to deal with the logistics of getting them. If he’s not, there’s a lot of time on the phone and sometimes back and forth, and not all of it is billable.

He knows dispatch does the best they can, but sometimes he feels like he’s zig-zagging all over town and spending most of his time in traffic, which doesn’t pay- as a senior technician he’s mainly paid on his billable hours. Sometimes that gets pretty frustrating.

He tends to use his own mobile phone at work for email, text, and looking for documents online. The company provides a tablet-based device, but it’s kind of hard to use and he just refers to it for dispatch and a few other things.

Thinks Trent thinks the dispatch process should be more systematic to avoid jobs that are far away or not consistent with his expertise. Also, he wonders if there isn’t a better way to stock and distribute parts- that’s a big problem. All this is important because a lot of his time is wasted and he’s paid hourly for jobs.
Sees Trent sees that a lot of the company’s best talent either goes into business for themselves or goes to work at large clients. They often end up with better hours and better pay. Sometimes, though, they end up short on business or having to put in long hours to do their own marketing and admin stuff.
Feels When Trent’s sitting in traffic for a job he could have gone to earlier that day in 1/3 the time he feels angry, he feels cheated and like the company doesn’t care.
Does Trent works around 45 hours per week. He’s regularly on his personal iPhone looking up equipment manuals since it’s easier than the company-provided tools.

Problem scenarios for Trent:

Problem Scenarios Current Alternatives Value Propositions
Finding up to date reference documentation in a usable format Carry printed manuals
(They think- but later they find out the tech’s are actually Googe’ing vendor documentation and that works fine)
We’ll offer a library of vendor manuals that are indexed and searchable in a consistent way tailored to the technician’s needs
(They were able to eliminate this VP with customer discovery- the Alternative actually works quite well.)
Getting replacement parts to a job site. Call the office and request the part then wait for an update on the phone or through a call-back We’ll create a more automated parts ordering process with greater transparency on cost and turnaround time
Getting all the necessary information to arrive at a job fully prepared. What the customer tells dispatch isn’t always conveyed or consumed by the technician and the customer ends up repeating themselves or the technician ends up with less information than they need

Trent often calls dispatch on his way in and try to get a quick briefing; he reads the notes on the job if they’re available.

We’ll create a more structured, automated request and dispatch process with better routing and storage of notes from the customer
CHILD: Customer needs and needs for the job should be covered systematically during dispatch calls. Some dispatcher’s keep a sort of checklist but it’s not company-wide. We’ll create an adaptive checklist to make it systematic and easy. We’ll also create a model and presentation for customer sites to avoid needless repetition and facilitate asking the right questions.