If user personas are so important, then why don’t we make better use of them?

If user personas are so important, then why don’t we make better use of them?

Using personas in technology projects

Personas are one of the most overlooked, yet critical parts of developing any solution. Many within the industry utilise them well, yet I sometimes feel that there are more people that don’t utilise personas at all, or utilise them in poor way. In this post I’d like to re-make the case for the user persona and talk a little about how I use them to deliver better solutions.

First off, what is a persona and why should we bother?

A persona is a fictitious profile of someone who interacts with a system, a product, or an organisation. In essence, they are the ‘end users’, the ‘ideal customers’ and the ‘target market’. Building profiles to represent our users helps us to understand them better, so we can shape the decisions we make to better serve them.

The success of any project, product or organisation relies heavily on how it fulfils the needs of these people, so we really should make them a focal point for our efforts. However, when our heads are down in the trenches, it’s easy to forget about these people as we burrow down different rabbit holes.

Note, I am going to use the term ‘product’ for the rest of the article as an all-encompassing term for product, project, system, or anything else that’s built or delivered.

What goes into a persona?

In short, any information which would help us to deliver a better product. There are no hard and set rules and each person tends to have their own style. The key is not to go too deep and to avoid getting lost in the process, and wasting time trying to satisfy insignificant persona needs.

The structure of your personas may also likely vary by the type of product you are trying to deliver. For example, an internal operational product would most-likely have a different persona style to a front-facing B2C product.

For an internal product, you might want to start with:

  • Their job role, daily routine, associated processes and where their role fits into the wider picture (a process map maybe useful here)
  • What information they need (and when) to effectively perform their role? And what constitutes success in their role?
  • What pain points and frustrations do they have in performing their role?
  • The level of technical expertise they have and experience in using similar systems. Which other systems do they use?
  • What are their work goals and objectives?

For a B2C product, you might want to start with:

  • Key demographic information, such as age, location, income and education level
  • Common behavioural patterns, what’s their routine?
  • The pain points and frustrations they have both generally and in specific scenarios
  • What are their hobbies? What makes them happy?
  • What concerns them and which pains would they like to avoid?
  • The drivers behind their purchasing decisions

It’s key to note that you will most-likely have multiple personas. It’s not unusual to have between three and half-a-dozen. Any more than that, and it might be wise to question if your product is trying to satisfy too many people.

Sounds sensible, so where do we sometimes go wrong?

It’s no secret that many products fail to effectively meet the needs of users. If it’s an internal project, then we may be left with a system that no-one wants to use and a lot of wasted time and money. For B2C products, even more time and money may be spent with few customers to show for it.

When this happens, it can often be traced back to one of the following:

We didn’t define any personas, or rushed through this stage of the process

Personas were never defined in the first place. Sometimes it is so tempting to assume that we know everything about our users. We are keen to deliver a product quickly and sometimes tell ourselves that we already know this stuff. But this is so dangerous, because as well as we may know our users, by not writing it down we fail to challenge assumptions and to provide a focal point for the project.

We defined personas, but then forgot about them

This, I’d argue is more common. Personas are defined, but then not referenced often enough and never updated (yes, it’s not uncommon to keep refining personas as you go). As developers, project managers, owners and sponsors, we get drawn into the delivery cycle and don’t stop to ask the critical question ‘are we meeting the needs of our personas’. As such the project gradually moves further and further away from what would satisfy our users most.

In summary

Every project needs a focal point and what better place to start, than with the needs of the people that your product will be aimed at? Defining and refining personas helps us set out on the right path and keep to that path as the project progresses.

Define your personas, challenge your assumptions, and engage with your potential users. If this was a core mantra of every team, then I’m convinced we’d have more successful projects with far less wastage.

That said, don’t get too hung up on making the perfect personas…a perfect persona doesn’t exist!