Personas for Design, Development, & Growth

personas-blockThe best products are built (and sold) on a vivid, actionable, testable view of the customer. Personas are a way to get that view. A personas is a humanized view of your customer, designed to drive better more testable decisions within your team.

This tutorial will show you how to draft, research, test, and apply personas across your work in both product development (engineering/development) and promotion (marketing, sales).

Creating Personas

What is a persona?

Personas are humanized descriptions of customers and users. They’re standard tools in practices like design thinking and Lean Startup, and for good reason: they’re highly useful for just about anything that has to do with making stuff or selling stuff.

They generally have at least 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.
  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.

The balance of this article is about helping you understand how to create such personas and to use them effectively in your projects.

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.

What isn’t a persona?

business-guyIn 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/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. 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.)

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.

How do you create a persona?

The 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:


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).

Using Personas to Make Stuff & Sell Stuff

Who uses these personas and how?

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.

In the rest of the section, I’ve posed a few key questions you should be able to answer with personas. Pick or add the ones you think are most relevant to you now. Keep them on hand and bounce them off your personas as you draft, research, and iterate on them.

I organized these example questions against the two items above: Making Stuff and Selling Stuff.

How do personas help you make stuff better?

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


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


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?

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?

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?

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?

How do personas help you sell stuff better?

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:


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

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!)

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?

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?

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

What do they think about our competitive alternatives?

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?)

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

These don’t typically have obvious, direct relationships to personas, so I’ll skip them. (Please comment below if you disagree!)

Drafting Personas

What’s a good 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):


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.


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 draft personas?

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’).


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:


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.

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.


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:


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.


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:


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.


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:


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.

Talking to Customers

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

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:

Finally, if you’re planning a design sprint [link] 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.
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.

How do I interview them?

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.

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.

personas-processWhat 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).

Deepening Personas through ‘Day in the Life’

‘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.

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.)

Personas: When and why?

Let me tell you a little more about how that can work. Below is a sequential view of the process I teach, Venture Design:

Venture-Design-Process-Source-Personas-Forward 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.

Most likely, you’re already in the middle of a project. Here’s a view of how the process works in reverse, starting from something that’s already built or delivered: Venture-Design-Process-Source-Personas-Reverse

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: Venture-Design-Personas 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: The-Twin-Antipoles-of-Design-Failure

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: Personas-Problem-Scenarios-Alternatives

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: Lean Product Hypothesis

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-Three-Little-Pigs-SmallStoryboarding 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:

      1. It’s narrative, helping us tell our story
      2. It’s sequential, helping us walk through complex ideas
      3. 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: Before-and-After-Storyboard

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.

Customer Development Storyboard-Before (1/3)

Frank the Functional Manager is really busy and just goes and make the hire.

Customer Development Storyboard-Before (2/3)

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.

Customer Development Storyboard-Before (3/3)

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.

Customer Development Storyboard-After (1/3)

Making good hires is rarely easy but Frank the Functional Manager now at least knows they’ll have a certain baseline skill set.

Customer Development Storyboard-After (2/3)

And life’s a lot better.

Customer Development Storyboard-After (3/3)

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.

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.

Developing & Testing Personas

Lean Startup with Design ThinkingYou 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:

lean-persona-hypothesis 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.
lean-problem-hypothesis 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.
lean-value-hypothesis 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.
lean-customer-creation-hypothesis 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.
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?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.

lean-persona-hypothesisPersona Hypothesis

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.

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?

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.)

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. Crossing-the-ChasmBilliards-Early-Adopter

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?
Example notes?
What the vetting process was like on the last few candidates?

For a template with these items, see Interview Guide (Venture Design Template). For more on the process of design research, please see: The Customer Discovery Handbook.

lean-problem-hypothesisProblem Hypothesis

Yellow-Walkman-SmallRather 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.

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:


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)?

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 [5] 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?

For a template with these items, see Interview Guide (Venture Design Template). For more on the process of design research, please see: The Customer Discovery Handbook.

lean-value-hypothesisValue Hypothesis

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.

Value-Hypothesis-Example For more on this, see the curriculum on Lean Startup.

lean-customer-creation-hypothesisCustomer Creation Hypothesis

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 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.

usability-hypothesisUsability Hypothesis

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

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. 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

User-Stories-v4Agile 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.

Next Steps?

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.


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

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.

Personas, User Stories TutorialPersonas 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-the-HR-Manager-PersonaHelen’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 doesn’t have deep knowledge about software development, so she’s getting the functional manager to give them the detail they need on job descriptions to screen for 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 is responsible for recruiting 6-12 new positions per year, screening 25-50 candidates for each position.


Problem Scenarios/
Current Alternatives Value Propositions
Helen sources and screens engineering candidates for open positions, sending only qualified candidates to the hiring manager. Many of the skill requirements are outside her background. She calls references to get a general sense of their performance on the job. 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.
Helen writes job descriptions with Frank the Functional (hiring) Manager. In a perfect world, they’d continually improve these based on hiring outcomes and employee job satisfaction. Right now she just gets lists from the Functional Manager and basically passes them through (to job postings, etc.). We’ll offer a best practice of menu of possible skills linked to popular job descriptions. They can then pair each of these with quiz content to assess candidates’ familiarity with target skills.
She’d 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 isn’t sure how to assess what skills the employees and managers would like to develop. 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-the-Functional-ManagerFrank’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’s in a growth area and hiring talent is one of his most important responsibilities. He spends time with Helen as much as possible to source and screen talent, but he thinks he’s chronically under-investing his time and energy. We can help Frank easily provide a focused, testable job description and screening criteria to reduce the amount of time he has to spend and improve his outcomes.
Culture and personality fit is one of the most important factors in determining a candidate’s overall satisfaction with a position on Frank’s team. Frank needs to assess this. With all the time he has to spend screening candidates for the basics on skills, Frank doesn’t have enough time to do a good job here. We’ll free Frank up to spend more time on this by a) reducing the amount of candidates he interviews and b) giving him a strong first-order idea of where the candidates are on key skills.
Frank would like to put a focused professional development program in place and make it part of how he helps his staff develop their careers + keep up with the needs of their projects. He’s identified a few key topics and sent out some links to tutorials and online courses, but he’s not too sure who’s doing what and if/how it’s helping them with the work. 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-the-Candidate-PersonaChris 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 knows most job descriptions are done in a rush. He wants to know what the job will be like in actual practice. 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. The topic list from the quiz is a good, basic description of what skills he’d be applying.
Chris wants learning experiences and while every employee says their committed to to learning, in practice the allowance they make for it varies a lot. There really isn’t a good, reliable way for Chris to ascertain this during interviews. If he’s interviewing with peers, he can ask, and once in awhile he gets a good answer. The quiz is a signal that the company has specific expectations about skill and ascribes importance to them. Pairing that with a skills development program (and using that to set the trajectory for new hires) 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-the-Staff-Person-PersonaSteve’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
It’s important for him professionally that he’s keeping up with new topics and learning core best practices. While he can do it on his own initiative and time, Steve would like management to spend more time on their professional development. We’ll give management a tool where they can create skills-driven, testable job descriptions. They can use these both for recruitment and learning management.
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

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.


  • gary

    Like the whole site, the personas section is extremely thorough and efficient. As an example, take a look at the questions to ask an interview subject when developing the problem hypothesis; they’re directly to the point. Couple this with your observations and you have an idea of what’s really going on.

    • Thanks for posting Gary and I’m so glad you found it helpful!

  • Tibor Zahorecz

    well, just found a presentation on slideshare and checked the book on Amazon and found the site! Congratulation! Excellent Content and Knowledge! I will read it step by step. rgds from Budapest!

    • Hi Tibor- I’m so glad it’s useful for you! Regards from the SF Bay Area!

  • Meggie

    Great blog, I am recommending this to my students!

    • Meggie- Thanks and I’m so glad you found it useful!

  • Just wanted to thanks Alex for his suggestion of ‘observing vs. asking’. Having recently beta launched (a customer service solution) we needed to learn how people used our app. We divided our beta users into 2 cohorts. One group was observed and and the other one was sent a survey. We learnt a lot more from the observed groups even though it was a smaller group. We were able to identify recurring pain paint points quickly and easily without having to sift through the noise of comments.

    • Vincent- Thanks for sharing that. It’s so valuable for other entrepreneurs and innovators to hear from each other. My admiration also for testing both approaches in a way where you could make a decisive comparison!

  • Matt

    Thank you Alex, this is a really practical, comprehensive and useful resource and has helped me crystallise the distinction between personas and value proposition plus what sequence they should be developed in.

    • Hi Matt- Great! I’m so glad you found it helpful. Thanks for for leaving a note.

  • Instead of re-inventing the wheel, fix the existing wheel to make it work better. It is that simple. Thanks a lot, its a great blog.

    • Yes! And make sure that wheel is a problem that’s important to your customer (vs. an arbitrary solution)! Thanks for the note Sanjeev!

  • Bayu Kelana

    Amazing. I’m using this in my class, TechnoBusiness Creation course

  • Subhashchandra Rastogi

    I accidentally came to this site…and found it excellent. Congrats Alex, a great job done very systematically and with example. I am new to this (I mastered Value Management however) and also developing a course on Design Thinking for Indian B-School. I will definitely refer your contribution. Keep it up!!

    • Hi Subhashchandra- I’m so glad you liked it and good luck with your class. It sounds great.

      Not to overload you with material, but in case it’s useful, here’s the syllabus and teaching guide for the Software Design class I teach, currently at Darden: . It draws heavily on design thinking/product design.

  • Amy J.

    Great stuff, Alex. We are setting up customer personas at our company right now and will be using this template to help drive our process.

    • Hi Amy- Great! I’m so glad to hear it! Thanks for writing!


    FYI – there’s a broken link in the “persona template” at the top, under “Step 4: Maintain and Revise”

    • Thanks for letting me know and sorry for the slow response! I think I’ve got it sorted now.

  • Felipe Bassan

    Alex, Thank you so much for sharing. The things I’m learning on Coursera is helping me to change drastically the way my teams work.

    • Hi Felipe- Thanks for writing and I’m so glad you’re finding it helpful. I’m also delighted to hear you’re liking the Coursera course ( Stay tuned- if you’re interested, we’ll be checking in with students and alumni about sharing their stories in a new segment for the course!

  • Hello Alex. Under Persona Discovery for Enable Quiz, THINK and SEE seem to have the exact same example questions. Thought you might want to rectify.