Towards a more Effective Persona

Raj Nagappan
May 4, 2019 · 7 min read
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Do your personas seem artificial sometimes?

I have a love/hate relationship with personas. That’s not quite right; that’s too strong. It’s more like I have a like/dislike relationship with personas. What I like about personas is that they can breathe life into a generic, otherwise faceless “customer”, or worse still “user”.

What I dislike about personas is that often they are ineffective imitations. They take a real-life, flesh and blood — and emotions and aspirations and fears and limitations — person, and may reduce them down into a few glib bullet points. Often the bullets points fail to capture those emotions, aspirations, fears, limitations and so on.

Which is to say, most of the time, I think that most people are doing personas wrong. They lack empathy for the subject.

One criticism of personas is that they capture information that is mostly irrelevant to the job to be done. For example, what does it matter about a person’s age, gender, occupation and socioeconomic status if we are talking about whether a chocolate bar can satisfy their hunger or not? Often it is this type of cookie-cutter demographic information that is gathered in a persona that limits their usefulness for answering any meaningful questions.

One of the classic examples of jobs to be done is the milkshake. A fast-food chain discovered that during the morning, their sales of milkshakes spiked. They tried all sorts of permutations like offering different flavors, changing the thickness of the shake, and so on in order to increase sales further, but nothing had an additional effect of generating more sales. So they finally interviewed some of those customers during the morning peak to discover what attracted them to buying milkshakes at that time of day.

What they discovered was that these customers were buying milkshakes as a liquid breakfast during their morning commute. What attracted them to the milkshakes were attributes such as: it filled them up until lunchtime, it could be eaten with one hand, it could be easily held in the cup holder in their car, it didn’t create crumbs like a pastry did, and so on. So from this, we can backtrack to discover the relevant properties of a persona for this task: someone who has a job and is in a hurry to get to work on time so they skip breakfast at home, someone who drives to work, someone is time-poor (at least in the morning) and needs convenience more than total nutrition, someone whose appearance matters enough that they cannot have food crumbs all over them.

Notice that age, gender, income, etc all don’t have a significant role in the above example — all the usual suspects for a typical persona that is! What frustrates me about the way that many of us do personas now is that we’re often wasting time capturing generic information that has no real value and does not drive real insight or empathy into whom we are designing or building for. (Even worse is the mythical “user” story. Many agile user stories start with the phrase “as a user, I want to…” There is NO informational content in that prefix “as a user”.)

Let’s digress for a moment. As I mentioned in my previous post, as a brand you need to tap into the values that are important to your customers. Not your own values, but rather the values that your customers hold dear. Many of the best products tap into a meaningful experience or value for their customer and improve it in a way that is meaningful for that customer within that context. Fitbit taps into the value that regular exercise is meaningful for their customer and substantially improves how that customer can track, monitor and improve their progress. Gopro taps into the value that high adventure experiences in remote and inaccessible places are meaningful for their customers and substantially improves how that customer can relive those exhilarating experiences both with themselves and with their like-minded peers. Tesla taps into a technophile’s desire to drive a futuristic science-fiction vehicle and substantially improves their ability to live out their fantasy of “driving in the utopian future”. (I would argue that it’s not primarily Tesla’s green credentials that makes the car so desirable but rather the fantastical notion that you are driving what will likely become the future of transportation, and you’re doing it today!)

So the key to creating a truly useful persona is to tap into both the situation that person is in, and what constitutes a meaningful value, goal or experience for that person. This necessarily requires you to focus on one type of customer and their needs (I as described in “Who do you stand for?”). Going back to our milkshake experience, this might be to seamlessly fit breakfast into an already overwhelmed and over-burdened morning routine.

Within this approach, demographic information is often unlikely to be helpful. (Unless of course your product is focused on a specific demographic. Toys are focused at children, so things like color and movement that appeal to that demographic are important. Products targeted at the elderly need to cater to their reduced dexterity and slowed reaction times.)

Let’s return to our original problem of creating a more effective persona. For a B2B product we often solve a particular business problem. So relevant information for our persona might include that person’s job description, how junior or senior they are and their ability make decisions or use the outputs of our product within their wider organization. For example, if we want to build a better word processor, it doesn’t actually help our customer very much if their actual experience is that no one actually reads that brilliant document that they wrote using our product. We would likely need to look at the wider context of their job — their limitations, constraints, overall goals and ambitions for example. We might look beyond the individual to see how the team or department achieves its goals. This would give rise to several interdependent personas corresponding to each of the major roles within the team. We might look both upstream and downstream to see how our persona receives information relevant to their task and how they hand off information to others. We might look at the type of information that they are writing about, who their audience is, and how those words are consumed. So our word processor, rather than being a standalone product, becomes a part of a larger but more important need to share specific types of information in a timely manner. Our customer may never have needed a better word processor, but rather just a better way to share their thoughts and to get people to take notice of them. What we need to capture in our persona is not attributes about them per se, but rather an analysis of how they will benefit from using our product.

What we really want to do is to help our customers become better versions of themselves. An effective persona captures what exactly this means for our target customer. And then that empathetic perspective feeds into a product plan or OKR to realize a mechanism for moving them along that path. That phrase is key — we need to identify the path that our specific customer wants to take in both their day-to-day work and their longer-term ambition and help them to walk that path. An effective persona is a vivid story about both the path and that person’s movement along it.

In summary, my rules for an effective persona are:

1. A good persona is a detailed analysis of that person’s tasks, goals, values, and constraints, and how all those things will benefit from using our product.

2a. A better persona is a detailed analysis of that person’s situation, aspirational goals and “big-picture” objectives — the broader context of what they are trying to accomplish and the situation or constraints that they are striving to achieve it within. Our product’s core purpose must be to help our persona accomplish their overall goal.

2b. And the same applies for any relevant larger frames of reference such as their team, department, external collaborations or industry.

3. Where more than one role is involved, a separate persona is needed for each role, including a detailed analysis of the responsibilities and interactions between those people, and how they each benefit from using our product.

Note that in the above rules, the discussion of our product should be limited to how it helps our personas effectively accomplish their goals or overcome constraints. That’s it. No laundry list of features. Just a simple analysis of what we do to help our customers accomplish their goals and become better versions of themselves (it’s about them and not us). For the detailed analysis of how our product actually achieves that benefit, save this for your product plan!

Kathy Sierra writes about this. For example, if we sell cameras, then our goal should not be just to sell cameras. Our goal should be to turn our customers into better and more active photographers. Fender transformed itself into a digital learning hub for amateur guitar players (who make the majority of purchases by total volume), and their sales skyrocketed. Meanwhile rival Gibson focused on high-profile rock star ambassadors which created a feeling of inaccessibility and “that’s not me” for many buyers; in 2018 Gibson filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In other words, a product company is best served by positioning itself as a service company whose core purpose is to help a well-defined group of customers become better versions of themselves. Like Nike does for athletes. Like Gopro does for adventurers. So we can distill the above rules into a single rule:

A great persona identifies how we can help a specific type of person (or team), who is in a given situation or is motivated by a goal or an aspiration, to become a better version of themselves.

Further Reading

Raj Nagappan

Written by

Founder & CEO, PhD, software engineer. Experimenting with new ideas to help craft better products that customers love. Connect at is experimenting with new ideas around product management, UX design and software engineering to help craft better products that customers love.

Raj Nagappan

Written by

Founder & CEO, PhD, software engineer. Experimenting with new ideas to help craft better products that customers love. Connect at is experimenting with new ideas around product management, UX design and software engineering to help craft better products that customers love.

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