Challenging the Make-Believe in Personas

Indi Young
Jan 30, 2019 · 5 min read

newsletter #41 | 15-January-2019

Entering the fairy-tale forest …

When you use a character acting within different scenarios to help you design products, many of you turn to personas. Personas have a dual heritage; some organizations follow the “marketing-informed” approach and others follow the Cooper/Goodwin user research-informed approach.

The “marketing-informed” approach comes from the imperative that to sell product, your org must make people aware of the product. To make people aware, frequently you place ads, set up booths at conferences, publish articles, make commercials, etc. All of these mediums have historically been physical, and historically different locales were categorized by the types of people likely to be there to notice your org’s message/product. We’ve since expanded to digital, but the sense of “locale corresponds with certain types of people” still prevails. These “types of people” were historically broken down by demographic … and then also by psychographic (preferences, hobbies, etc.). So, personas of the “marketing-informed” branch are designed based on these locale-corresponding types. These “marketing-informed” personas are mostly defined by demographics and preferences, loosely tied to the product purchasing behavior. (They’re rarely tied to product usage behavior, because marketing is done when the product is sold, right? Heh.)

Note that the Cooper/Goodwin branch is strongly tied to valid qualitative research about product usage and intention.

I’ve introduced the concept of thinking-styles: characters from the problem-space based on research about people’s approaches to their purpose, and their guiding philosophies. (Introduction essay: Describing Personas ) Thinking-styles are changeable by context, as human behavior is truly changeable. As characters in your scenarios, thinking-styles make you more aware of context. Thinking-styles are characters from problem space research, and as such, you are made more aware of your assumptions, unconscious bias, and narrowness of focus. (That latter bit, narrowness of focus, may actually be exactly how you want to start if you’re trying to enter a market, so you can make a strong, solid hit. Different topic for another essay …)

Here are a couple of questions and answers about thinking-styles that I hope resonate.

Q: I have some people I work with who are certain they understand the customer demographic, all their behaviors, and how they think. But IMO there’s a lot of make-believe in the way these stakeholders think of customers. It’s getting urgent to address. When stakeholders say, “I’ve been in this market for a long time so I know exactly who buys this type of expensive coffee machines, and their types and their reasons,” how do you challenge them?

A: Take the existing personas and score them based on whether they address only the lead-up to the purchase, or if they also address ongoing usage of your product. If there is a bit of the latter, how deep does it go? If they’re pretty lightweight on the post-purchase thinking, then these are “marketing-informed” personas: great for ad placement but lousy for innovation and good, deep design.

Also score the personas based on the way they directly map to features of the product. If each component of the persona (“needs” or “pain points”) maps directly to features, these are backwards personas, made up based on the product’s capabilities. The more connected the personas are to the product features, the more entirely in the solution space they are. Instead, if the components of the persona cover that person’s larger purpose, then it indicates these characters might have been derived from the problem space. Overall, you’re looking to see how product-universe constrained the personas are, or if they break out of the realm of the product into the larger realm of the purpose. (Example: for expensive coffee machines, the purpose is not to make coffee. In the problem space, the purpose might be to savor coffee, or to make a partner delighted with the smell and taste of amazing coffee, or to reward productivity in the afternoon, or to distract from negative aspects of
morning life, etc., etc. In the solution space, it’s all about how you accomplish this purpose, possibly using this machine, but also with additional components such as the type of cup you use, etc.)

Hopefully these scores will give you the ability to get the attention of the stakeholders. You may also need to make a little post reminding everyone about the foundations of empathy, to prod stakeholders into a receptive frame of mind:

  • open minded (reasonably comfortable with new ideas)
  • willing to be convinced that other perspectives are valid (not terribly judgmental)
  • mindful that assumptions are always lurking in their thinking

Q: How do you know if you have enough meat to come up with a thinking-style segment? I can’t figure out how much richness is required for the thinking-style segments.

A: I create thinking-styles based on listening sessions with people, so I get transcripts. And in those transcripts (and in the listening sessions) I dig for three things:

  • people’s inner voice (thinking, reasoning, deciding, wondering, etc.)
  • their reactions (emotions as they happen in a point in time)
  • their guiding principles (instructions for making decisions)

I skip over all the surface stuff. Opinion, preference, generalizations, explanations — all these are derived from a history of inner thinking, and I want to know what that historic inner thinking has been over time. You can’t understand a person without knowing how their mind works, how they react and handle their reactions, and what guiding principles are driving their decisions. Cognitive empathy (understanding a person’s way of thinking & reacting) is based on the richness under the surface. The richness is the inner thinking, reactions, and guiding principles.

When I am asked to review existing transcripts to help teams make thinking-styles (or better personas), often the transcripts are from user interviews in the solution space about ideas and products people use. These kinds of transcripts are usually not rich with inner thinking about the purpose a person is pursuing. Depending on the interviewer, there might be more richness in some transcripts than others. If you get transcripts from listening sessions (instead of user interviews), then hopefully you will have more richness. But again it depends on the skill of the listener in helping the participant explain their inner reasoning and histories of inner thinking regarding their purpose.

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