It’s 2019 and we’re still doing personas the wrong way

We’ve been picking the wrong ones and defining them in the wrong way

What’s common between persona and problem?

  • It’s easy to start with the wrong one and set yourself up for failure. The failure often reveals itself too late in the product lifecycle.
  • Both are often victims of Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 thinking (impulsive, automatic, intuitive) instead of System 2 thinking (thoughtful, deliberate, calculating). This video can help understand these two systems.

There are two critical System 2 decisions in a persona project- picking them right and defining them right.

Picking them right

I have seen product teams picking personas that are too broad to relate to (“The Millennial”) or too many to solve for (over 3 is too much). Instead of rushing to represent each of the customer segments from the marketing team, how about we pick the ones that are directly relevant to the product success.

Product people, there are really only 3 personas you need to get you equipped to create a solution that people will love, share, and become better with:

The Early Adopter: someone who will give you a fighting chance

She is already hacking a sub standard solution to the exact same problem your product solves. The Early Adopter is the path to least resistance for the early traction your product needs.

The Skeptic: someone who will ask you the hard questions

At some point you will need to expand your universe to the masses because what works for early adopters might not work for the rest. The Skeptic will impose a system of checks and balances to your hypotheses.

The Loyalist: someone who will extract value for a long time

Your product hopefully helps people become better over time. The Loyalist represents users that need the product to improve constantly. They are the most demanding but also the most rewarding for the business.

Defining them right

Would you build a different solution based on your persona’s picture or name or (debatable) even age?

I have seen product teams using personas that are:

  • Too full of attributes of correlation, not causation. Typically a persona includes a fake name, age, gender, location, and a picture.
  • Too devoid of behavioural insights. The more thoughtfully done personas out there go on to include user role, goals, pains, scenarios, and psychographic attributes.
  • Too average (is there such a thing?) Read
  • Most importantly, do not have a great answer for “now what?”

The problem is we are trying too hard to understand the world of our customers, and not enough to understand the underlying job they are trying to do.

We need to do this the Jobs To Be Done way.

Understanding the customer is the wrong unit of analysis- @claychristensen

The problem is that by anchoring around attributes we do build empathy and internal alignment, but end up diluting the functional and emotional elements of value our product needs to deliver.

In most cases we don’t need a fake name, age, gender, and picture. we don’t care about who they are and what they do for a living. It doesn’t matter where they are from in the multiverse.

In fact, we run the risk of being ageist, sexist, and racist when we focus on demographics and attributes. 👇

Let’s not stereotype jobs or even how you communicate with each persona.

A colleague of mine would say, “Oh but we can only push retirement products to the slightly older people, not to the twenty somethings.”

Let’s not forget that people are retiring earlier as well as later than the conventional age. Let’s not forget that people are also thinking well in advance about retirement because it’s just wiser to.

The point is this- anyone who has a job to be done needs a better way to get that job done. Does not matter who they are.

How about products that cater to a specific segment (persona), for example YouTube and YouTube Kids? I would say they both target the same persona (the parent) but different jobs.

Kids are equally happy using YouTube and YouTube Kids because they both do the job (video discovery and watching) equally well. YouTube Kids only exists for the job it does for the parent (keep the kids safe from harmful content).

When Coffee and Kale Compete by Alan Klement

To help ship a product that people love, the persona of 2019 should include:

What progress are they trying to make in their lives

What are the possible ways to upgrade the user at these 3 levels: functional, emotional, or self betterment.

For LinkedIn one of the many progresses people want to make is: “Stand out and get in touch with hiring managers”

Read this excellent post by Alan Klement

What are the struggling moments towards the progress

These are the triggers that will cause people to reach for a new solution. What anxieties, regrets, fears, and guilts are they trying to avoid?

We are looking for the gaps that exist between the progress they want to make and what the existing products and solutions are delivering.

What else is competing to help make the same progress

This informs where exactly should you position the solution. Sometimes completely unrelated solutions might be the real competition.

LinkedIn’s competitor is not only Twitter and Facebook, it’s also YouTube where people have an opportunity to make progress towards “standing out”.

What’s an offer they can’t refuse (mafia offer)

Based on what you know so far, what’s your best guess for what might work? This is the first step towards crafting a compelling unique value proposition that leverages your unfair advantage.

Conclusion (for now)

This list will evolve in the next few weeks as I start to think more deeply on the topic. Once we get rid of the demographic distractions from personas, we make way for the insights that matter much more for product people. We make way for causality, not just correlation.

I am not sure if we even have to call it a “persona” any more. A canvas may be a better tool to get this job done (watch this space). The Lean Canvas by Ash Maurya comes very close but that’s more representative of the business person’s progress and struggles not the customer’s.

I would argue that the so called “marketing personas” would also benefit from this cleansing of this old artefact. It’s not easy to write marketing messages based purely on buyer attributes. They too need the onion peeled to reveal the next juicy layer, a deeper understanding of buyer needs.