Creating Customer Personas - Identifying Your Customers - Customer Analytics For Dummies (2015)

Customer Analytics For Dummies (2015)

Part II

Identifying Your Customers

Chapter 5

Creating Customer Personas

In This Chapter

arrow Applying personas in product development

arrow Identifying sources of data to build a persona

arrow Turning data into a persona

Personas are fictional customers based on real data obtained from customer segmentation analyses, ethnographic research, surveys, and interviews.

The purpose of a persona is to better focus product development and marketing efforts on real customer needs and goals rather than just abstract demographics. To make personas more realistic, they get names like “Marcus” or “Shannon” and have pictures or can even be life-sized cardboard cutouts.

While the people and pictures can be fictional, the details should be factual: Their goals and characteristics should represent the real needs of a larger group of customers.

In this chapter, I discuss the ways personas can help product development and marketing efforts for an organization. I walk you step by step through the persona creation process with examples and show you how they can answer important questions.

Recognizing the Importance of Personas

When you’re busy developing a product, it’s easy to start wondering what a hypothetical customer could want to do and build in new features to support these possible scenarios.

I’ve worked with many development teams building consumer and business software products. Product managers and developers spend lots of time discussing all sorts of scenarios. That’s part of product development: understanding what customers need and meeting that need (see Chapter 9). However, there’s a difference between making sure a product meets core customer goals and getting bogged down in making sure a product can do everything.

technicalstuff Unusual scenarios are called edge-cases and include all the things a customer might do with software but probably wouldn’t do most of the time. A customer might want to customize the toolbar in a software program. A customer might want to access the command line. A customer might want to code plug-ins.

The problem with the “coulds” and “mights” is that there is an almost endless list of things one customer could do or might want to do with any product. Trying to build for every possible scenario means building a product that doesn’t work well for the most common scenarios customers want.

If you try to build for all users, you build for no users. A persona is intended to focus design thinking. If a persona named Marcus represents 70% of your customers’ goals, behaviors, and profiles, most design questions can be answered by asking: Would Marcus do this? Personas are powerful if they are specific.

When you understand your customers’ motivations, expectations, and abilities, you have a more accurate picture that helps to design better products for them and how to make them choose your product over your competitors’ offerings.

Counterintuitively, precisely defining the goals, motivations, and needs of a narrow slice of customers and designing for them will not necessarily narrow your market. On the contrary, it enables you to fully focus your efforts on entirely satisfying these customers, gaining their loyalty, and letting them take care of marketing your product in the most effective way: by recommending it to those around them.

Now boarding

An example of a dramatically successful product that was specifically designed for a comparatively small customer segment is the roller-board suitcase as featured in the book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum (Sams - Pearson Education). If you’ve been on an airplane in the last ten years, then you’ve seen these getting put in the overhead bins.

The roller-board suitcase, complete with retractable handle and wheels, was not originally designed for you and me, but for airline flight crews. It perfectly met their needs: It was compact, simple, easy to haul around busy airports, and just the right size to fit a few changes of clothes. As a result, flight attendants were extremely satisfied with it and popularized it so much that roller-board suitcases have since become the norm for air travel. Personas can help you design such perfectly adapted products.

It’s important to create a persona that represents the primary segment of customers for a product. The advantages of thoroughly researched and well-developed personas are:

· As stand-ins for real users, they guide decisions about design and functionality.

What is Marcus going to use this product for? If Marcus’s needs and skill level are already defined, it is simple to figure out how to serve him better. Personas help prevent programmers or designers from creating products that would be perfect for themselves or from making guesses about what customers want. A persona helps keep the end user involved in the product development.

· They allow you to concentrate on designing for a manageable target who represents a larger group.

Focusing on one customer segment and fully satisfying it is much more efficient to increase sales and profits. Trying to satisfy all your customers at once does not work.

· They give a common and consistent goal to the design and marketing teams.

Marcus, with his particular motivations and level of proficiency with the product, needs to be on everyone’s mind. If everybody works to satisfy him, not only the design of the product but also the message sent to customers will be consistent and more convincing.

· Prioritizing design elements and resolving design disagreements can be done in an economical way.

Personas are great communication tools. In explaining decisions to colleagues or people higher in the company hierarchy, use of personas helps refocus the conversation on the target customer.

· Identifying opportunities and product gaps to drive strategy becomes easier.

Having a precise idea of the target customer, actually trying to see things from his point of view, is an excellent starting point for brainstorming. Novel feature or product ideas can emerge from this single customer-oriented thinking.

· Designs can be continually evaluated and validated based on personas to reduce the frequency of usability testing.

If the whole programming team strives to make a product designed for Marcus, there should be fewer surprises when conducting real-life testing.

Working with personas

When you embark on the process of creating customer personas, multiple personas typically emerge as you identify various customer segments and use cases. The number and type of personas reflect the diversity of your customer base.

For example, automotive websites like, Kelley Blue Book, and have different types of customers that research information on cars. Some customers are auto enthusiasts, others are parents with kids, and still other significant segments of the customer base are young professionals intimidated by the car-buying process.

One such car company created seven personas from the data it collected from interviews and surveys on how customers researched automotive information online. The company broke the seven personas into four primary and three secondary personas. Breaking the personas into primary and secondary groups helps website developers decide on the prominence of automotive information. The primary customer segments are embodied in primary personas that want many details about car specifications. The designers then cater to this primary class of users by providing multiple views on engine, body, performance, and feature details. However, they can’t ignore the secondary personas who represent another significant portion of website visitors — those who are intimidated or less interested in the minutiae of car specs.

In building the personas, the key characteristics identified in surveys and interviews that defined the persona were the type of car (new versus used) and the emphasis on price versus style.

One primary persona, Bill, is 34, single, and possesses strong opinions about car brands and style. He’s less interested in other people’s ratings and loves to research cars whenever he has time. His defining quote is: “I have to have a new car every year.” An abbreviated version of the Bill persona is shown in Figure 5-1.

In contrast, a secondary persona is represented by Sam (see Figure 5-2). Sam doesn’t like researching cars, and this is the first one she’s buying on her own. She’s just out of college and is looking for a good deal on a used car. She wants something reliable but fun. Her defining quote is: “Buying cars is intimidating but I have friends I can ask.”

Having the relevant information about primary personas like Bill means the designers should be sure car enthusiasts can get to all the technical specs they want on the website. The designers balance the Bills with the Sams, who will visit the website to look for basic information like features and reviews. Sam isn’t interested in technical jargon, so the designers have summary information and graphics to denote high and low gas mileage vehicles and price, and display the rates prominently on the car detail page.


Figure 5-1: An example of data included in a persona for an automotive website for a car enthusiast, a primary persona named Bill.


Figure 5-2: An example of data included in a persona for an automotive website for a first-time car buyer named Sam.

tip It’s common to use stock photography for personas (as in this chapter). While it’s fine to use actual customer pictures, it can be difficult based on customer privacy concerns. Give the persona a face, but don’t be too concerned if it’s a model rather than a real customer.

Getting More Personal with Customer Data

A few simple steps are required when you need to build an effective persona.

Step 1: Collecting the appropriate data

The most important rule in building a persona is that the information you use for it should not be made up or based on opinion. Base your persona on actual data. Collecting, aggregating and analyzing customer data from customer databases and social media helps provide input into a data-driven persona process.

That said, although you want customers to like your product, the best data to start with is not obtained by asking your customers what they like or don’t like.

Personas concentrate on what a user does, what frustrates him, and what makes life a bit easier. A good persona is a narrative that describes a person’s typical day and experiences, as well as skills, attitude, background, environment, and goals. Personas identify the motivations, expectations, aspirations, and behaviors common to a large segment of customers.

Start with demographic data from a customer segmentation analysis: gender, age, industry, how frequently they use the product, and so forth. This tells you a lot about who your customers are; however, it rarely includes information about motivations and goals, which are essential in building a persona.

To understand what your customers are trying to do, use the following methods.

Conducting a new survey

Surveys are one of the most cost-effective ways of gathering data from lots of customers. You can survey existing customers from customer lists or prospective customers by using panel agencies that recruit qualified customers or prospective customers. In addition to basic demographics, ask questions about motivations, goals, and challenges.

tip See Chapter 13 for ideas on conducting a top-tasks analysis that gets to the primary things customers really want to do with your product.

Interviewing customers

Interview customers to get a better understanding of motivations, goals, and challenges. You can conduct the interviews in person or over the phone.

warning Don’t cold call customers. When collecting customer information, be sure a customer opts-in to being contacted. Allow customers to opt-out of being contacted again if they wish.

tip Avoid focus groups if possible. Unless your product or service is used by groups of people at the same time, conduct one-on-one interviews. Group sessions can easily be influenced by personalities and are often best for generating new ideas to test later. In the interviews, have customers talk about their problems, frustrations, and goals.


Watch users as they use your product, a competitor’s product, or just try and solve problems on their own. This is often referred to as ethnographic research or field studies. In observing, you can see things that are hard for customers to articulate.

For example, while I worked at Intuit, we watched customers as they entered their information into point-of-sale cash registers, then exported their sales at the end of the day into QuickBooks. The process of exporting and importing was both time consuming and error-prone. This frustrating process inspired the Intuit design teams to come up with ideas about how to make balancing the books easier.

Usability testing

Have users attempt common tasks with your product or service. Don’t ask users what they like or dislike; instead, watch them interact with it and look for pain points and opportunities to improve your offering. (See Chapter 14.)

Secondary research

If interviews cannot be conducted or surveys commissioned, partial second-hand information can be obtained from within your company: in sales, marketing, product, customer support, and tech support. While it’s not ideal to rely on secondhand information, personas from secondhand data are usually better than not building personas at all.

tip Use a mix of methods, both surveys and interviews, and minimize opinions and guesses. You’ll often notice a behavior in an interview or field study and then you can look to understand its prevalence by conducting a follow-up survey to a larger set of customers.

remember Avoid asking for opinions and concentrate on motivators. Many times, users do not know exactly what they need, but they do think about what they want.

While there is an art and science to writing good survey and interview questions, in general you don’t want to lead customers down a predetermined path. Avoid questions that suggest an answer or have simple yes or no questions. For example, “Would you like this product to be easier to use?” is not the best question because in most cases customers will say yes. A better question would be, “If you could fix only one thing about the product, what would it be?”

tip Like building customer segments, just because you have data (like detailed demographics) doesn’t mean it will be relevant to constructing a persona.

Step 2: Dividing data

After gathering data about your customers, look for themes and patterns that are relevant and based on behaviors and goals. Categorize open-ended comments or actions observed in field studies with other similar comments and actions to identify patterns. In particular, look for patterns around:

· What they expect to accomplish with your product

· How they go about achieving their goals

· What their technical background or product proficiency is

At this point, it is useful to brainstorm:

· Do you need more information?

· Can you group the data in other ways?

For example, we were conducting research on the major email providers such as Gmail, Yahoo!, and Hotmail. After surveying 1,000 users, we found repetitive comments about how Yahoo! changed its interface too often. This would be a good candidate for understanding how often Yahoo! actually changes its interface and what type of customer is averse to the changes.

Step 3: Identifying and refining personas

From the most important groups identified in Step 2, define an initial set of primary personas as described in the earlier automotive website example. These will constitute your “set of characters” the product or marketing teams should focus on.

For each persona, create a realistic portrait.

· Create an identity with details that make the persona more real:

· Name

· Picture

· Personal history

· Create a portrait with data that connects a persona to a customer segment:

· Goals

· Habits

· Expectations

· Skills

· Attitudes

· Motivations

· Environment

remember Some personas in your set of characters are not among your target customers. In fact, some of them could be examples of whom you are not designing or marketing for.

warning Don’t overdo the persona process. Although personas provide many cost- and time-saving benefits, there is a diminishing return if you spend too much time and effort developing them. Don’t get too bogged down in documenting every detail or spend too much time creating bloated documents. If development teams and marketers are faced with too much information, it will get ignored.

Creating a good persona requires composing both qualitative and quantitative research, but it should be presented in no more than about one or two pages. It is not a job description. Stay away from minutiae like tasks, duties, and responsibilities. Concentrate on skills, attitudes, motivations, environment, and goals.

tip Follow these guidelines as you develop a persona:

· Use multiple sources of data: Segmentation, interviews, surveys, and observations.

· Get buy-in: Interview stakeholders from sales, product development, product support, and marketing to look for agreement and insight.

· Don’t base it on one customer and his idiosyncrasies.

· Distinguish types of data:

· Data that connects a persona to a customer segment (for example, proficiency level with your software)

· Data that only makes the persona more real to you (for example, his name is Andy MacPherson)

Creating a persona in three steps

Here’s an example of using all three steps to build a persona. My company helped the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) with the redesign of its website. As part of the effort, we needed to define who uses the website, and then build a set of personas to help the new development team design for this cast of characters.

This figure shows an example of a persona called “Vanessa.” It was created as one of ten distinct personas representing archetypal members or people otherwise interacting with the website:

· We started with demographic data obtained from 1,000 visitors to the current website collected over a two-month period.

· We supplemented this demographic data with six stakeholder interviews to understand whom NMSS was targeting and to ensure the new website aligned with the organization’s mission.

· We conducted 30 in-person interviews that matched the customer segments identified from the surveys and stakeholder interviews.

During the one-hour interviews, website users also showed us how they use the current website, the type of questions they have, and how they go about using the website to answer their questions.

Observing the portrait of Vanessa reveals several strategies you can use to build better personas:

· Vanessa is introduced not only by a name and a picture, but also by a defining quote.

· Although simple and conversational, the main body of the text reveals important information: how the disease of multiple sclerosis concretely affects her life, her attitude about it, and how she interacts with the Society. These are real pieces of information gathered through research and interviews about a certain segment of people living with MS.

· The text is written in the first person, like a testimony. This is another strategy to make Vanessa more true to life.

· Key information, both fictional and from research, is emphasized on the right side.


Answering Questions with Personas

Personas provide details to important questions that a customer cannot define:

· How can you make your product easier to use?

· What is your product’s top task?

· What motivates customers to use this specific product over a competitor’s?

· How do you develop a successful marketing strategy for the product?

By using a persona to answer these questions, design and marketing teams can actually be in the user’s shoes, and can better meet a real user’s needs and wants. The following scenario illustrates how personas make that possible.

Will Swanson is a 52-year-old civil engineer working for a consulting firm involved with multiple projects in China. He travels to Beijing or Shanghai at least once every two months, always flying from Chicago. Additionally, once a year, Will and his wife (Sarah) fly to Hawaii for a week to visit his parents. Will routinely flies with United Airlines and usually pays for his flights online using his United credit card. He visits the United website about once every two weeks.

Laurie O’Reilly is a 30-year-old K-12 English teacher who lives in Albany, NY. Once a year, carrying coloring books and pencils, she flies to Florida with her husband (Ben) and their two young children. There, they enjoy some family time in the sun. Twice, Laurie found a special deal and they went to the Bahamas instead. Laurie has some flexibility around her traveling dates, which enables her to look for the best prices. She does not own an airline credit card, but she does buy tickets on the Internet. She does not have any special preferences for United Airlines; however, she visits the website about once every two months to check ticket prices.

Will and Laurie are very different personas; they will not answer questions in the same way. An example of a question could be, “What is the most important feature of the United Airlines website?” For Will, the website’s most important feature is to allow him to quickly find the exact flight that he needs: right time, right destination, no layover. For Laurie, the most important feature is the ability to find the best possible deal: She is flexible with time and exact destination and does not mind layovers, but she wants to pay as little as possible. Therefore, if both of the customer segments represented by these personas are to be satisfied, both of these tasks need to be easy to perform (without getting in the way of one another).

United Airlines’ marketing team can also use Will and Laurie’s personas to segment the airlines’ customers and reach them in different ways. Will is likely to be more responsive to emails promoting special frequent flyer benefits, while Laurie might appreciate time-sensitive emails from United, alerting her when there has been a price drop on family-friendly beach destinations, such as Florida or the Caribbean.

This is just a simple example of how personas enable you to efficiently and effectively understand, identify, and communicate what the user needs. Usability testing is another strategy to identify specific opportunities to improve, innovate on, and bridge the gaps to make sure you are delivering a fully functional and usable product. Usability testing is covered in detail in Chapter 14.

Another example of a product designed for one user that reached a surprisingly wide audience is the GoPro camera prototyped and developed by surfer Nicholas Woodman. Woodman designed a wrist strap with an attached video camera to record himself surfing. He hoped to produce professional quality footage of himself while on the water. For that task, he had very specific needs: a camera that had a very wide viewing angle, that was waterproof, that could be positioned in different ways, and that was not too expensive. He soon realized that he would have to design not only the wrist strap, but also the camera. Focusing only on his own specific needs, Nicholas Woodman had created a product that was perfect for millions of other amateurs like him. It exceeded its original market, California’s surf culture, and is now sold to snowboarders, skiers, social activists, and countless others all over the world.

While most products are not designed by the user, similar results can be obtained with a persona-centered perspective.