User Personas — more important than ever

Several years ago whilst working at one of the world’s largest design companies the idea of ‘customer centricity’ was not merely an important notion or guideline — it was one of the core founding principles of almost everything we did. Indeed, Design Thinking has the ‘customer’ as one of its three underpinning pillars.

To help us understand and relate to our customers we created customer personas.

One example of one type of Persona from a Wikipedia page:

(User Experience) Personas are defined as fictional characters created to represent the different user types that might use a site, brand, or product in a similar way.

Understanding customers ensures that we’re able to create relevant and appropriate experiences. This is true with product and service design of course but increasingly the opportunities we have to apply this to communication design are huge.

Creating personas in product design cycles whilst incredibly useful is not straightforward. There are challenges that we always face in securing the data that will inform our personas. When identifying patterns of behaviour and the aspirations and desires of customers, we often have to rely on small sample sets and, most significantly perhaps, rely on people being objective with their answers when sat in focus groups for example. Whilst product designers will engage in a lot of observation (I’ve heard it called ‘watching humans in the wild’!) they also have to rely on people telling them what they like and want — a research area littered with problems.

Organisations now have opportunities to create highly informed (comms) personas.

By highly informed, I mean data-driven of course.

Data is nothing new — Amazon have been doing their recommendations for years and 10 years ago I was doing email A/B testing — looking to understand some basic consumer preferences.

But there have been some significant changes over the last few years that have brought data to the fore.

· Mobile, internet usage in general and the e-enabling of services and communications means there is now data defining many more of us and there’s a lot lot more of it.

· Social Media

· Ultra sophisticated adtech and media platforms integration

· The ability to store, crunch and access data can be done by entry-level hardware.

· Almost as soon as the above became true, cloud services now mean the most sophisticated platforms and software are at our fingertips with minimal investment.

· The ability to choose and publish bespoke and curated content instantly.

· Marketers and advertisers have finally come to the realisation we’re moving from a brand centred advertising model to a customer-centred personalised and customized experience informed and delivered by digital.

The above makes for some powerful opportunities that marketers cannot ignore.

We can now get customer-centric — know and communicate with people in ways that simply were not possible only a few years ago. The personas that we can create now are dynamic and ever evolving and they differ in a number of ways from personas that product designers might have used say ten years ago.

1. We don’t need to ask anymore: Areas of interest, desires, aspirations and specific behaviours can be inferred directly from actions (clicking, liking, searching and watching etc). We don’t now need to rely as much on older, more traditional research tools like real-world observation, interviewing or focus groups.

2. Dynamic and Evolving: Ten years ago, product designers would typically have created personas that would have then remained static for the duration of the design cycle. Today, our digitally informed personas can and should be dynamic and evolving with every subsequent digital interaction. Every single open or not open of an EDM or like on Facebook must further inform and refine what we know about that customer.

3. Potential Granularity: Product designers may have created 6/8 personas as part of their process. Today, although not necessarily articulated as such, a simple comms strategy over a year with a few dynamically created emails, some dynamic and personalised web content and a few up/cross sell initiatives could mean we’re running hundreds of different brand experience journeys — each effectively driven by a ‘sub-persona’.

4. Automation: Rather than having to build the personas today we are able to create the framework and the rules to allow the personas to build themselves. This is a subtle but distinct difference. And it means being able to do the simple stuff very easily and puts complex and sophisticated highly customised and personalised communication channels at our disposal.

5. The Product: I alluded to the old static personas of years ago and, of course, in the product design world of TV’s and the like, products were essentially static too. If we think of our product now as our brand communications, our product can be as dynamic as the personas that inform it. A few clicks and searches over the next week inform my persona-type changes. I should reasonably expect that to mean a different email and landing page next week. Dynamic persona — dynamic product.

As these opportunities to know customers better and better become increasingly available it will be incumbent on all organisations to understand who they are talking with and, to varying degrees, look to personalise communications based on who they are talking to and when.

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