March 31st, 2012

What happens if you don’t use personas?

A potential client once asked me to write this up to help her convince the powers-that-be to invest in the project. Thought I’d share with all y’all.

Every website, product, or service should be built on a solid, shared understanding who your customers and users are and what they want and need. This is important, not only because satisfying customer goals equals making money, but also because focus on users enables diverse internal teams to communicate using a common language and make decisions that add up to effective products. Personas are ‘fake people’ and, in some cases ‘fake companies’; they are detailed descriptions of your key customers and users built out of your knowledge of your customers, your business objectives, and data. 

What happens if you don’t use personas? Of course, that depends on the project, team, and company. But there are several key problems that personas solve particularly well, and these are problems that plague a huge number of technical projects and the teams who work on them. These problems include:

  • Wasting research money. Research is critical, and it can be expensive. Personas help you identify the questions you need research to answer, and how those answers will impact the design and development process. Without this clarity before the research is scoped and conducted, you run the risk of collecting ‘findings’ that don’t answer your most important questions.
  • Under-utilizing research. When you do collect helpful data, it’s not easy to communicate the key findings in a way that helps your team make better decisions. Personas capture key research findings in a way that’s ‘digestible’ to everyone working on a product.
  • Lack of clarity. The persona creation process forces key stakeholders to clarify their business, brand, and customer experience goals, and value propositions and differentiators, very early. These conversations can be difficult and contentious, but without the clarity that comes from them, there’s no chance of helping everyone on a design and development team understand what the business needs them to do. Clarity at the start of the process helps you avoid big surprises once you start designing and prototyping, including the ‘this is all wrong! change everything!’ surprises that many product teams encounter after they are well into the process.
  • Lack of a common language. Clarity is one thing; communication is another. Personas translate ‘business-ese’ into a shared language that everyone can understand and buy into. For example, telling a developer that new software has to ‘cut our costs by 60%’ isn’t particularly helpful; telling her that ‘Arnold After-Hours is costing us $4MM in customer service every year, so we absolutely have to make his experience better’ is helpful.
  • Equating marketing and product design. Marketing is all about getting people to a product; personas are all about moving those eyeballs around after they arrive. Marketing should be highly involved in persona creation, but the personas should be built to capture the goals and needs of people who actually use a product. Driving product decisions based on marketing insights can lead to major user experience issues.
  • Playing follow-the-leader with the competition. Everyone thinks the other guy, or the bigger guy, has done tons of research and made smart design decisions. Usually, this isn’t true. After you create personas, you can take a very fresh look at the current experiences available for your key customers; this is incredibly eye-opening and allows the team to think creatively. Personas allow you to use your competitors effectively: you’ll know what they do that works well, and what to avoid like the plague.
  • Random feature prioritization decisions. Assigning weights to personas according to how each will help the company achieve the business goals enables the team to make well-informed, consistent decisions when it comes time to ‘triage.’
  • Finished products that solve half the problem for lots of people. Of course, all the personas are going to be important to the business. However, you can’t do everything for everyone all at once. Without personas, many teams try to include a little bit for everyone, and the final product suffers.