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Creating and Using Personas

Watch Alex Cowan to learn about creating and using personas.
We’ve introduced the idea of personas and how important they are to really get at something substantial, where you’re anchoring your user story into a user that really exists, that you really understand, and that you are, above all, able to provide actionable use of to your team as you all collaborate on this pivotal question of what’s really going to be valuable to the user. In this video we’re going to look at the practice of creating personas and I’ll close with an introduction to the template we’ll be using to actually start formulating these things and designing personas. We’ve talked about how personas are a humanized view of who your user is. And this is an example of a bad persona.
I see this kind of persona a lot and it’s okay if this is where you start, but there’s a few things here I would avoid. Number one, this is a gigantic population women, age 28 to 45. Now even if your market encapsulates a population that large, it’s certainly not where you want to start with an innovative new feature. In design we learn to start with the individual and generalize outwards. Also a lot of the traditional views of marketing about working in aggregates and things like that, don’t work well for design.
So, for example, we may be less interested in how old these women are and more interested in what they actually do in practice like, have babies and go to the park. Well, you could have young mother and an older mother doing that. Secondly, these bullet points are something that you generally want to avoid. We’re not looking to provide little cute shorthand snippets about this persona, we’re looking to really create substantial narrative because that’s what’s actionable. One of the things that I think is really fascinating about the way people work with each other is how little we probably really understand about what other people are telling us.
There’s this great story in the book, Made to Stick, where they cite this experiment from UCSD. There is one person in this experiment who taps out a song, like Row, Row, Row Your Boat. And the job of the other party is to understand what that song was. And the shocking part of the result is that I believe 74% of the tappers thought that their counter party had understood that song, but actually it was only 7.4%. So think about that for a minute. What would that mean if people are collaborators only understanding one-tenth of what we actually tell them.
And that’s why bullet points and these sort of short hands and cliches do very little to help us drive to valuable outcomes for the user. We need nice substantial narrative. We need real photos, not stock photos taken off the Internet. And maybe one of the most pernicious things here is that, they responded to a survey online. And we’ll talk more about why this doesn’t work. But if you ask a customer or user a hypothetical question, especially a yes or no one, like hey, would you like this new feature we’re going to build? They’re just going to say yes, because they just want to go home, or move on, or whatever.
They know if they say no, you’re going to feel bad, and they don’t want that. And you’re going to argue with them and they don’t want that either. So unfortunately, that is not a thing that we can do to kind of fast forward through this and get to a good answer that’s going to help us drive to valuable outcomes. Customer discovery just doesn’t work that way. This is an example of the start of a somewhat better persona. And there’s a few things I think are better about this. One, I really like this little technique. Mary the mom, Andrew the accountant.
Every little thing you could do to humanize these personas and avoid the tendency that we have to just make them arbitrary and put corporate speak in, and put in cliches, and shorthand. Every little thing that you can do to help avoid that is good. And this is one such thing. Also we see full sentences here. And this is the beginning of real actual substantial narrative. And the photo, this is a real photo taken with an iPhone. I made this checklist as a way to think through whether you are in a good place with your personas. Good personas should be vivid.
If you hand them to a collaborator or you reread them a week after you created them, you should feel like you know this user. And you can make thoughtful predictions about what kind of shoes would they wear? How would they relate to such and such a feature or even a piece of promotion we’re going to do? And then you should be able to loop back through and test those things. And that’s part of the action ability of personas. If they don’t help you make decisions and design ways to test whether what you are producing is valuable, then there is no point in doing these things.
Humanizing your work is just another thing you can do to help you drive two valuable outcomes. Like the user’s story, the only role of these personas is to help you drive strong narrative interdisciplinary collaboration. And if they’re not helping you do that, they really have no point. They should be real. The more you’re out observing real users, and real customers if you have customers, the better off you’re going to be with these personas. So rather than talking about, do we think Mary the mom would do this, or do that? Make some time, make an hour. Pop outside, go talk to them, call them up on Skype.
Everything is better than being inside your conference room and arguing about the persona inside the team. All the good answers are out there in the real world. They should be identifiable. So that doesn’t mean that they’re demographically specific. But you should be able to consistently find these people. And a good litmus test for your personas is can you think of five people that match this persona off the top of your head that you could go out. Even if you don’t know their name that you could go back out and find. They should be pretty exact. I mean people are complicated. If you design something for everybody, you’re going to end up with something that’s bland, and that nobody likes.
Now, it doesn’t mean that you can’t ultimately accumulate a lot of customers onto a a product. Of course you can. But these personas are a way to drive at specific sources of values that you can test. And if your personas are vague. They will fail you in that way. And they should be pretty detailed. I mean, people are complicated. There’s no specific length at which a persona is done, of course. It has a lot more to do with how descriptive you are and whether they’re helping you really do all this other stuff. Particularly, whether they’re actionable.
My last company, Lena Systems, we built enterprise software for communications companies. Companies like France Telecom and Verizon, people that offer communication services. And so, some of the stuff we built would allow companies to interface with their end users. So, these are examples of end users that would use a business phone system. A receptionist, an assistant, an executive that travels a lot, maybe he’s on his cell phone a lot, or she’s on her cell phone a lot. So, we use these to help inform our work about the end user. And these are enterprise personas where, these are people that would actually work at our customer, this communications companies. And you’ll notice that there’s quite a lot of these.
The IT developer for example, this is a very occasional persona that we would only use once in a while. But it’s still important because for example, this is someone who would customize our product at the front end of a deployment. Now, are they regular everyday user? No, but that initial interaction was really important. And in practice, the persona helped us make some really good decisions about the kind of development environments this person uses and what tool and what documentation would work for them.
Because even though they don’t use our product on an everyday basis, if they ran into a problem, if would be a huge issue for them, and a big blocker for us as a company when we’re selling the software and deploying it.
Here we’ve learned about what personas are and how to use them. And what I’d like to do is quickly show you the template that we’ll be using to help you draft some of this stuff. This is what we call the Venture Design Template, and the URL for it is in the lesson materials. I will scroll through the Table of Contents here and show you, for example, where we would go and write up the persona. I click here, and you may not be able to read all this, but you can see that there is a place here where you can copy this template and write up your persona.
There’s places and prompts for you to make your notes on think, see, feel, do. And to create problem scenarios.

In this video, Alex explains the difference between creating a bad persona and creating a substantive narrative that’s actionable.

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