Use Personas to Design Solutions for Your Workforce (Part 1: Why Do It?)

By now, you’ve either read about or discussed the concepts of HR thinking like a marketer and treating the workforce like customers. Valuable concepts, but where do you start? You start where the very best design teams in the world start — Personas. This is Part 1 of 2, which focuses on the value of using personas to design workforce solutions. Part 2 of this article focuses on how to go about creating them.

I’ve read many definitions of the term written by interaction design (IxD) experts. This one from Gregg Bernstein sums it up really well:

A persona is a representation of a type of customer. Personas answer the question, “Who are we designing for?” and they help to align strategy and goals to specific user groups.

When introducing the concept of personas to HR professionals, I encourage them to simply replace the term ‘customers’ in this definition with ‘workers.’ This helps pave the way for the right design mindset.

As Schlomo Goltz puts it, “a persona is depicted as a specific person but is not a real individual; rather, it is synthesized from observations of many people.” Each persona represents a significant portion of people in the real world and enables the designer to focus on a manageable and memorable cast of characters, instead of focusing on thousands of individuals. Personas aid designers in creating different designs for different kinds of people; designing for a specific somebody, rather than a generic nobody. Please see Figure 1 to get a sense of what a finished persona looks like.

Figure 1. Sarah M., North American Sales Manager

What better way to approach the job of serving the workforce and setting them up for success than to truly understand their unique points of view, goals, needs, challenges, and frustrations? With thoughtfully constructed personas, HR strengthens the foundation for design thinking by gaining the perspective of the workforce and bringing their voice to the table. The result? Workforce solutions designed by HR are better adopted, more efficient and more successful. Additional benefits HR teams gain from user personas include:

  • Empathy: By creating personas, HR learns what it’s like to walk a mile in the shoes of various workforce segments through a variety of ‘journeys’ such as onboarding (thank you, Ryan Malkes), open enrollment and performance evaluations. By walking through these experiences, HR gains a deeper perspective outside the function, and from this POV, makes decisions that are authentic to the workforce’s goals, needs and desires.
  • Focus: Personas help HR avoid the ‘peanut butter spread’ approach, which applies vague assumptions about wants and needs across the entire workforce. Most workforces have more than one ‘user type.’ Developing a persona to represent each one helps help HR both define a solution’s design and hone its intended targets.
  • Efficiency: By walking through processes persona by persona, HR can identify redundant touch-points and eliminate inefficiencies like re-entering a name multiple times or requiring three levels of approval when only two are needed.
  • Buy-in: A persona document helps HR communicate research findings to other stakeholders in the business; mapping specific journeys that reflect an understanding of what different types of workers truly want and need. This makes building consensus faster and easier.
  • Guiding Principles: Personas help illuminate what the majority of users want, allowing HR to see what is most commonly useful and what is a “one-off.” When points come up for debate when designing a solution, personas are a practical tool for making better decisions.

In Closing

As HR professionals, and more importantly humans, we must accept that we are naturally limited by our own points of view. However, with practical tools like personas we can tap into the mindset of the customer (i.e., the colleagues we support) and make decisions that not only serve the workforce, but also have the potential to drive real change.

Why use personas to design solutions for your workforce? In short, the design will be smarter. Check out Part 2 of this article, which focuses on how to create them.

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