April 19, 2017

When it Comes to User Personas, Let Research Fall Where It May

A well-developed user persona is unparalleled in its ability to refine and improve the end-user experience, and crafting a digital experience around persona attributes and needs can be the difference between happy, satisfied users and users that don’t get value from your product. While there’s immense value in using personas to improve your digital experience, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s no one right place to start when creating them.

When developing personas with our clients, we don’t always have the luxury of moving linearly through the design thinking process. In design thinking, user research typically comes before persona creation, but clients come to us will all varieties of audience understanding, different budgets and often constrained timelines. Some have a pressure-tested set of personas that they’ve been using, while others have just a hunch that some users fit within certain behavior and demographic categories and haven’t actually met users to confirm their persona schema.

When no user data is available from research, we’ll create “proto-personas” based on the product team’s knowledge of the user. When we have the opportunity to conduct user research after the exercise of creating proto-personas, we use that data to corroborate our personas, adapting and changing the personas based on user research to strengthen our understanding. Sometimes this results in personas that are more behavior-based or problem-based, rather than role-based.

Are Personas Ever Final? Hard No.

If you’re surprised to learn there are many approaches to building user personas, you may also be curious to hear that personas are never final. Not even close. That’s why we add “proto” in front of “personas” when we create them based on a team’s assumptions rather than research. Even with research, a persona can hardly ever be fully validated, and even if it’s close, it’s only for a certain amount of time.

Businesses can always be doing more to understand their users. From contextual inquiries to user interviews and usability testing, businesses pursuing a user-first approach must always be pushing forward opportunities to learn more about their target audiences or users. This may not be the quickest or cheapest strategy, but it’s a safe bet to outpace competitors through innovation based on actual user needs and problems rather than assumptions.

Unfortunately, according to our recent study, Executing Digital Transformation, most companies fall short on understanding their audiences. One in five respondents (21 percent) feel their organization does not do enough in-person research to understand their audiences, and only a third (32 percent) of respondents are extremely confident that their data reporting leads to a greater understanding of their users.

Here are some tips to continuously improve your user personas:

Prioritize Research, Even if You Can’t Start With It

Although proto-personas are a helpful start when time and budgets are tight, once you have the resources to perform true user research, doing so can help you overcome harmful biases in your understanding of users and their needs. Your predictions may hold out, but it’s important to corroborate what’s assumed with what’s reality and be ready to pivot if they don’t align. If you’d like to learn more, my recent post about setting yourself up for successful user research is worth the read.

Pressure Test, Corroborate, Substantiate

For each iteration of research, you’ll have assumptions about your users. Prior to conducting research, make sure you lay all of your assumptions out on the table. The “Certainty Exercise” below is useful for determining what’s assumed verse what’s certain. This exercise helps to level-set your team and make sure everyone aligns around what you want to get out of your user research and how that relates to your proto-personas.

Establishing a Feedback Loop

Building effective personas starts with getting your team in the room and having candid conversations about your users. Establishing a feedback loop with those closest to your users, such as sales and customer service, not only allows you to hear from your customers and internal stakeholders but also sparks innovation. By having this feedback, you’ll hear great ideas about ways to improve and you’ll also iterate on what you’ve learned, refining your personas and, over time, better understanding their needs.

Let’s Workshop It with Certainty Mapping

To see proto-persona corroboration in action, let’s walk through certainty mapping, which is a great strategy to validate assumptions about user groups and focus your research in for discovery.

The basic steps are as follows:

  1. Make a list of what you think you know about each proto-persona using sticky notes. One sticky note should be used for each thing known.
  2. Bucket those sticky notes based on proto-persona group. Groups can include common players like end users, or niche parties like super users and buyers/influencers.
  3. Group each item within a persona based on common themes and interesting nuggets.
  4. Map those items to a certainty scale. How certain are you that each is true? Until you are 100 percent, consummately convinced, your answers will likely fall all over this graph.
  5. Rinse and repeat this exercise after each round of research to see how your understanding evolves.

No matter your industry, remember that the goals of persona building will always be iterative learning and empathy. User needs change as fast as the weather, and putting unwavering stock in personas is a bit like basing your entire vacation on a 10-day weather report. Sure, forecasts are based in fact, but we’ve all been caught in a surprise storm without an umbrella.

Conditions shift, and regardless of it’s the weather or consumers, keeping up with these changes requires continuous interest and effort. Contact us if you’re interested in learning more about personas or how persona building can ready your business for digital transformation!


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