Use Personas to Design Solutions for Your Workforce (Part 2: How You Create Them)

In Part 1 of this article, I made the case of why HR and IT groups should use personas when designing workforce solutions. In Part 2, we’ll cover how to create them step-by-step.

Step 1: Assess and align with the business
What business and workforce challenges are you trying to address? Are you trying to accelerate growth in 30 locations? Are you trying to make global project teams more productive? No matter how large or small, the challenges you need to address must be the place where the persona-building process starts. By starting with the challenges your business and various workforce segments face, you’ll ask the most advantageous questions and observe the most relevant behaviors that help you zero in on a solution.

“The job of HR is to help people get comfortable with new habits. Businesses change over time, and goals change over time. You need a system that reflects business reality and real human reality, which are always changing.”

– Dean Carter, Corporate Officer, HR, Legal, Finance, Shared Services, Patagonia

Step 2: Identify your target market and their journeys
Once you’re aligned on what business and workforce challenges you need to address, you should identify your target markets and reimagine each of the journeys in-scope. Journeys in an HR context include things like onboarding, enrolling in benefits, navigating performance management or simply finding the right content or expert to improve a skill.

“Managing performance is not about managing a process. It’s about managing behaviors and outcomes. Happy and engaged employees take care of customers; and when customers are happy, they’ll keep coming back, and we’ll keep growing…We’re teaching managers how to coach people to be be successful. Everything we do, every step we take, every action we make, is about helping people realize the steps necessary to be successful.”

— Cheryl Johnson, Head of Talent, Echo Global Logistics

To find common needs, behaviors and attitudes, you must find patterns within specifically defined groups. While traditional personas may stop at geographic, demographic, psychographic, and behavioral data, HR must consider regions or functions that have critical mass, and segment them accordingly in order to address nuances. As an example, a sales department may comprise individual contributors, team leaders and contracted resellers who all play a role — and who all work in different environments with different challenges, frustrations and desires.

Step 3: Decide what to ask
The most reliable way to learn from your users is to simply ask them directly about what you need to know. Questions can cross a broad range of topics from current frustrations to goals and motivations. You can dive deeply into different behaviors and attitudes related to current tech and tools, and what a future desired state looks like to the end user. The potential for questions is endless, but I find the following to be a useful starting point for conversations:

  1. What is your role in the journey?
  2. What do you hope to get out of it?
  3. Can you please walk through the major steps and activities that comprise the process for you today?
  4. Where do you spend most of your time in the process?
  5. What tools/services do you use?
  6. With whom do you interact?
  7. What do you like about it?
  8. What don’t you like about it?
  9. What ideas do you have to improve how it is done?

You’ll notice, these questions are open-ended and encourage people to both show and tell, often through examples.

Step 4: Collect the data 
In order to create reasonable composite characters through personas, your sample size needs to be large enough. Ideally, research should be done through interviews and focus groups that may be supplemented by a survey. That’s usually enough for trends and patterns to emerge. One thing to note — in my experience, finding your most opinionated rockstars is important in this step — they are usually very eager and quite willing to tell you exactly what they think.

Whenever possible, conduct interviews one on one or in small groups. It’s the most reliable way to gain empathy and secure the most trustworthy answers. Understanding that face-to-face interviews may be a limitation due to location, surveys and focus groups work too. Below is an example of a ‘Journey Map’ that can be used to discuss current state and set the stage for designing new ways of doing things.

Figure 2. Sarah’s Onboarding Journey Map (Hiring Manager Point-of-View)

Step 5: Distill the personas and verify accuracy
In this step you identify common patterns of behavior or specific attitudes and frustrations around the current state of different customer journeys. You’ll also gain insight into what the workforce really prefers. These insights can vary widely across people who hold similar roles. Therefore, it’s important to realize that a role is not necessarily a persona.

Let’s take another look at the sales department example from Step 2. You may have very seasoned sales reps who are change resistant and slow to adopt anything new for fear of jinxing their ‘proven process.’ You may also have newer reps, who are eager to adopt new systems and have not yet created deeper patterns of behavior (or superstition). Common patterns of behaviors and attitudes among the different salespeople should be grouped and represented by a unique persona — for example, ‘Sarah the Sales Manager’ or ‘Jeremy, the Junior Sales Associate.’

It’s so easy to get through a process like this and forget one of the most critical steps — verifying accuracy with the internal customers who took the time to share their input. Whether it’s because we fear the judgement or we simply forget, this step cannot be undervalued. After all of the work to craft personas, if they are not accurate, they will do more harm than good by giving you a false sense of confidence. Take the step — ask the people on whom you based each persona to rate the accuracy.

Step 6 (The Final Step): Use the personas to design your solution

Once you’ve built reliable personas and mapped their journeys, you’re well on your way to building a better mousetrap. No matter what the experience, having a clear picture of who the role players are helps you audit the experience step by step to account for the different behaviors, attitudes and preferences inherent to each customer journey. Through your research, you’ll be able to design processes and roll out solutions that modernize how work gets done and make for a better workforce experience in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and/or transparency.

Regardless of the journeys in scope, remember it all starts with thinking of your workforce the same way you think about your customer base.

“We want to provide a consumer-grade experience for all our employees. We want their experience to be as seamless and easy as shopping on Amazon. They should be able to quickly and easily interact with HR to get the services they need, regardless of who or where they are. Our goal is to provide a consistent employee service experience whether they are a remote production employee or an executive at headquarters.”

- Pam Velcheck, HR Shared Services Operation Manager, General Mills

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