Evolve Candidates into Personas

You’ve got your draft, or candidate, personas. Now it’s time to get them from a ‘draft’ state to a ‘finished’ state. There are two elements of ‘finished’ personas:

  1. You and your workshop participants accept the personas and are ready to introduce them more widely throughout the organization,
  2. The persona documents include all of the basic template elements and are ready to be formatted for distribution.

Once you get the acceptance and agreement on the personas (#1), finishing the documents is easy (#2). Don’t get distracted by a desire to rush to the finish line and create fancy, completed persona documents until you get everyone agreeing on the personas themselves.

I use a spreadsheet template for my candidate personas. It includes:

  • Numbers, to make it easy to reference ‘candidate #3′ and find the candidate in what could be a wide document
  • Name suggestions, often more than one per candidate, in the form of a first-initial + descriptive, differentiating, and alliterative last name (e.g., S. Shopper, P. Paranoid)
  • A draft of the persona narrative, describing who the persona is in a short paragraph or two,
  • The pink stickies (I want / I need statements) from the previous step in the workshop
  • Rows for questions or comments.

I create the first version of the persona candidates myself, and then schedule meetings to review the candidates in detail with one, or at most two, people at a time. I then schedule meetings to progressively introduce the candidates (and gather feedback) to workshop participants.

Though I expect feedback and edits to the candidates, I also follow an 80/20 rule for myself: I wait to introduce the candidates until I feel that I can defend them and argue strongly for at least 80% of work I’ve put into them.

Introduce the persona candidates

When you’re ready, schedule a 60-90 minute meeting with the workshop participants. You can do this in person or virtually. If you do it in person, project the candidates spreadsheet. If you meet virtually, schedule an online meeting with video, so you can see the participants’ faces during the meeting. Prior to the meeting, I share the Google doc spreadsheet so we can all be looking at the same document. The spreadsheet has a tab for the Persona Candidates.

During these meetings, I cover:

  • How I got from the pink stickies to the candidates (usually, the first round of pink sticky categorization happens during the workshop, but I often move things around once I tackle the candidates on my own)
  • The ‘differences that make a difference’ that I found among the stickies, which I translated into:
  • Candidates for personas,
  • The possible persona names, and
  • The draft persona descriptions.

I try to do an overview of all the personas before diving into the specifics of each, but inevitably there are ‘just a quick question’ moments that interrupt the flow, and that’s fine. My goal is to get the people I’m meeting with comfortable with the candidates and to encourage them to help me correct any major issues they see, including missing personas, ‘bad’ names, or details that are incorrect or misleading. I want them to be completely comfortable with the structure and logic of the document so they can do a deeper dive on their own after the meeting.

As a rule, getting people comfortable with persona candidates is as much about giving them time to absorb and sit with the candidates as it is going over and agreeing on every detail.

You’ll know you are ready to introduce the candidates to additional groups when the workshop participants feel ready to defend the candidates. As introductory meetings continue, your goal should be to step back and listen, and to let the workshop participants defend the candidates to their colleagues. The personas start to take on a life of their own as you let go of them and let the team own them.

Another option: meet with smaller sub-groups of participants

You don’t have to convene all of the workshop participants after the two-day session. You can [resent to the entire workshop participant group at once, but it also works well to schedule a series of smaller meetings with 2-4 workshop participants at a time. I have come to vastly prefer the latter, because:

  • it’s much easier to get through the entire set of candidates if you aren’t trying to manage feedback from lots of people,
  • the feedback you get tends to be more thoughtful, because it’s very hard to hide in a small-group meeting, and people pay attention and are engaged,
  • detailed discussions with smaller groups tend to lead to the participants feeling more bought-in and a stronger sense of ownership of the candidates.

Be strategic: discuss whether you should start with the senior-most participants or work your way from the bottom up. Leave at least a few hours between each meeting (preferably, schedule each meeting on a different day), so that you have time to iterate and make edits between the meetings and, if necessary, regroup with anyone helping you directly with the alignment personas.

You don’t need to have everyone in the room for these meetings; you can present the candidates remotely. However, it always helps to be able to see everyone’s faces and reactions. Everyone has to be online anyway to see the candidate spreadsheet.

Do a quick overview of the candidates.

Even if you ask everyone to review the candidate persona descriptions in advance, it’s important to read through the descriptions one by one. I usually start by introducing the set of candidates, reading each of their names and giving a one-sentence description of each, or identifying quote, as an overview before diving into details of each candidate.

Ask everyone to hold their comments, but don’t expect them to.

I ask people to hold on to comments until after they are introduced to the candidates, and they never do. That’s ok, but it can make managing the meeting a bit more difficult. Avoid deep-dive debates if you can, at least until you are discussing the details of each candidate. I ask people to “hold onto that comment” until we get to the candidate in question.

Present each candidate in detail and discuss–but keep your eye on the clock.

After your overview of the set of candidates, go back to the beginning and read each candidate description in detail:

  • Proposed name (usually in the form of a first initial/descriptive last name, or possibly several options, e.g., B. Beginner / C. Confused / W. What’s-This could all be options for names for the same persona. Remember that asking for feedback and ideas on persona names is a great way to get buy-in and build a sense of ownership.
  • The short description (e.g., “The first-time visitor who isn’t sure he or she is in the right place.”)
  • The longer narrative.

You do not need to present all the “I want / I need” statements that went into the creation of each candidate. The statements (from the typed up pink stickies) are all there on the spreadsheet and available for review, which can be very handy when there is some dispute about the candidate, but it takes too much time to review all of them in a group setting.

After you read each candidate, ask for feedback:

  • Does this persona feel ‘right’ to you guys?
  • What about the name? What do you think it should be?
  • Is there anything about the description that doesn’t feel right?

As people give feedback, I type their comments into the spreadsheet, usually using all caps and following the existing content but in the same cell. If there are pieces of feedback or recommendations for changes that everyone agrees with, I might change the original content, but I use all caps for the new text. This helps everyone see where the changes are.

Remember that some feedback is going to be very helpful, and some comes from a desire to be seen as helpful or important in the conversation. I type up the comments, but I also ask the commenters to recommend specific changes to the candidate personas. If they can’t, then there’s more work to do.

If there are one or two problematic persona candidate descriptions, or one or two problematic meeting participants, don’t worry. This is usually the case and there are several ways to handle this and move forward.


Iterate the personas based on feedback.

Iterate the candidate personas between each introduction/feedback meeting. This means that the personas may change fairly significantly between your first introduction meeting and your last. That’s ok. Keep notes on the changes that you are making, and why you are making them.

Common questions & objections about persona candidates

Alignment personas are usually pretty obvious once you create them. This doesn’t mean that you’ll get them completely right on the first try. Here are some common questions and objections, and how I usually handle them.


How do we know if these are the right personas?

Personas are a tool, and they are meant to solve a particular set of problems. At the beginning of the alignment persona process, you identified problems you hoped personas would help to solve. This is a good time to look back at those problems and ask yourself whether the candidate personas you’ve created can and will help solve the problems you’ve identified.

No matter what the company or project, all personas should:

  • Feel right to the team,
  • Create a common language that can replace the word ‘user’ (and all of the other words for ‘user’ running rampant in an organization),
  • Almost immediately help them team see opportunities to better address the wants and needs of existing and/or prospective users.

I feel like we are missing a persona.

I’m pretty generous about adding personas if members of the team feel like someone is ‘missing,’ even if there weren’t any pink stickies to support a new persona. Sometimes this new persona sticks, and sometimes it ends up folded in with another persona later in the process. Stakeholders tend to “remember” new initiatives at this point, and realize that they “need a persona” for the initiative. If I do create a new candidate, I look back through the pink stickies to find any that apply to the new candidate (or, better yet, ask the person who asked to create the “missing” persona to do so). It’s also fine to create some new pink stickies for the new candidate, even if these did not surface during the workshop itself.

I also point out that this new persona may or may not be relevant to the project we created the initial set of personas for.  For example, a company I worked with recently purchased another company and its product. This new product will enable them to reach a new audience of users, but no one thought about that during the workshop, which was focused on the existing product.  And, while the existing product actually won’t support the missing persona, I worked with them to create it.


Why on earth would you allow new personas to be created at this step?

Let’s pause here for a quick but important reminder about what we are really doing. Yes, we are creating personas to try to get the organization to think like users instead of about users. But there are bigger changes afoot. As you work through the steps of the ad hoc persona creation process, you are actually forcing some very difficult, DNA-level thinking on the part of key stakeholders. You are pushing them to think about why your product’s users and customers are there in the first place, and what makes them tick. They are thinking about the goals of the company and the product, and putting numbers and metrics around the goals. They are actually talking about things that they assumed everyone agreed on. Things are coming to light and bubbling to the surface.

It’s true that a huge purpose and benefit of personas is user-centered, empathic thinking. But I believe that bringing hidden, “obvious” business issues into the light, and providing a non-political vocabulary with which to discuss these issues, is at least as powerful and important. So, if a stakeholder suddenly remembers a “new persona” that’s fine with me. Anything that drags assumptions out into the open is ok with me. Once they are in the open, the assumptions (and associated personas, or goals, or whatever) are available for review and debate. I’m happy to discover nooks and crannies of assumptions hiding in the minds of key stakeholders now. Even though it’s late in terms of creating candidate personas, it’s early in terms of designing the new product.

I feel like these two are the same person(a)

Resist combining personas at this stage. There are probably good reasons you distinguished between the candidates in the first place. Remember that the meeting participants are still getting used to thinking about users in a new way, and they will have an urge to fit the persona candidates into their old model (for example, they will want to create a single “new user” instead of separate “J. Just Curious” and “A. Actively Comparing.”

You may also hear feedback like “can’t a single person be any, or all, of these personas, depending on when and why they are using our product?” This feedback is usually correct. Often, single users or customers use your product in different ways at different times, essentially becoming a different persona.’ The point of the personas, however, is to identify the critical reasons why people show up or things people are trying to accomplish. The personas should embody and represent the human goals your company, product or site was created to serve in some unique way.  So, while it’s true that the same person could just need a single, isolated piece of information one day and need detailed instructions on a complex process the next day, what’s interesting is not necessarily that they are the same person. Instead, what’s helpful is to understand what goals they are arriving with so that you can design an experience to fully satisfy that goal at that time.

I remind people to remember the little imaginary concierge at the building that represents the product or company. She’s sitting there and people are flowing in the door, and each is asking a question or stating a need. It doesn’t matter to her that the person who comes in on Tuesday asking for detailed instructions is physically the same person who was there on Monday asking for the quick hit of info. She sends each person to the right floor and office based on what they need now.

I feel like we need more data.

I don’t often hear showstopper requests for data during the candidate introduction meetings (a showstopper would be something like “I can’t even begin to give you feedback on these until we have data regarding X.” However, I do expect some questions about demographics and other data. Again, remember that meeting participants are still getting their heads around distinguishing users based on their goals, and it’s not easy to transition from thinking only about numbers to thinking about wants and needs. Record this feedback — you’ll use it to create a validation plan. But also ask others in the meeting how important they feel it is to know, for example, if C. Complainer is a man or a woman, and how old they are. Ask them what feels right in terms of age, race, and other demographics. In most cases, there are demographic details that simply ‘feel right.’ In other cases, you may have to do some digging to see if you can attach data to these decisions.

Assign Homework

After you introduce the candidates, it’s helpful to give everyone some concrete suggestions that will help them ‘test’ the candidates on their own. Give a timeline, usually a week, to provide feedback.

  • Look back at the spreadsheet that has all of our yellow stickies on it. Randomly pick yellow stickies and ask yourself ‘is this person covered by one of the persona candidates? If we make persona candidate X happy, will we make this person happy too?” If they find a yellow sticky describing a person who is not ‘covered’ by a persona, have them bring it up for discussion.
  • Look at our own site or product and ask yourself if there is anyone missing from the candidates. Are there particular sets of needs, goals, or tasks that aren’t covered by any of the candidates?
  • Don’t treat them as segments. Segments are a much more familiar way of thinking about groups or categories of users. Segments are designed to cover everyone (if one segment includes men aged 18-34, the next segment will cover men aged 35-50…typically there’s no gap between segments), whereas personas should capture key goals, and there may indeed be ‘gaps’ between them (e.g., Sally Shopper, Rhonda Researcher, and Helen HissyFit don’t fit together, and aren’t mutually exclusive, like segments, but all three could be important personas for an e-commerce site.)
  • Give yourself some time. Sit with the candidates for a few days and then revisit them.
  • Don’t allow too much time. I ask everyone to provide feedback to the candidates within a week at most, or forever hold their peace.

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