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Why Personas Haunt Your Company and How To Ghost-Bust Their Ass (free template)

Download your free persona template here.

When I think of personas, I see dusty old documents hiding somewhere in your computer. A pretty expensive excuse for research, invented somewhere in the nineties. Some horror scenarios:

  • Your personas sound like this: “Josephine is 30 years old and lives in London with her husband and two children. She works as an accountant for Company X. She loves riding horseback and baking cupcakes. Her favourite color is blue.”
  • The personas have been put together by six people in a meeting room. Every opinion has been taken into account — from personal experiences to marketing goals.
  • Somebody in the company started handing them out, without a proper goal, to people that do not care. Whenever you mention personas, people start chanting excuses to avoid dealing with it.
  • The personas are pages long and hard to scan. Because of that, nobody actually ever consults them, and they became a vague concept in some people’s minds.
  • They already cost so much time and money, so you can’t be bothered to keep them up to date. Eventually, they’re so outdated people pretend like the personas never existed.

This sends shivers up my spine.

When done right, a persona can be a powerful decision tool

First, let us explore what good personas can do for your company.

  • Prevent assumptions

    When you know your target audience, you know what they need. When I have my grandmother in the back of my mind, it prevents me from making the assumption that everybody knows how to swipe. It puts you one step ahead in the design process.

  • Prioritise and evaluate features

    When in doubt about features, consulting personas can help you prioritise. They make sure you won’t leave out important people or create features that will never be used. On the other hand, they reveal relevant opportunities. Less feature creep, less pivoting.

  • Advance communication

    Everybody has a different opinion about your target audience. My grandmother looks different than yours. An 80-year old persona called Wanda can be our archetype grandmother that puts everyone on the same page for the remainder of the project.Furthermore, a persona can help to communicate certain decisions to involved parties (e.g. stakeholders, developers, designers).

  • Inform your team

    To name a few fields where personas can be helpful: wireframes, interface behaviours, labels, visual styles and copywriting. An informed team can take ownership of the product and think a few steps ahead.

  • Empathise

    When you create features, a persona can help you empathise with your target audience. They become real people, with needs and goals, instead of a set of rules you tend to forget about.

In short: if you are starting a company, developing personas yourself helps you get your story straight. They give you a head start in shipping your first features.

How to avoid creating Frankenstein’s Monster

For reference, here is a free persona template.

Talk to your target audience

Personas do not sprout from peoples’ fantasies and post-its in a musty room, or from those dreaded surveys. Personas are created by talking in-depth to members of your target audience, following them around or immersing yourself into their jobs. Personas represent real people. You can ask for feedback from your colleagues, but co-creation is not the goal. Also, you are not part of the target audience. Ever.

Pick the right people to interview

It’s not always a good idea to invite your mom over for user interviews. Make sure your audience is relevant. A better starting point is to research marketing segmentations. Then you can find some people who fit the demographics. Attend user testing nights.

Pick the right personas

Usually, the image of a persona is fictitious, which is perfectly fine. But to make it really stick, you can pick somebody famous or one of your notable customers. It helps to communicate personas to your colleagues. Keep in mind that this person will represent a lot more people than themselves.

You can ask “Who is our most annoying customer?” to break the ice. Some people will smile and exchange funny looks. Others will be offended by their own thoughts. Which is okay — those will definitely stick. Afterwards you can start asking serious questions like “Who is our most influential customer?” and “Who gives you the most valuable feedback?” The ones they are thinking about are most likely the ones that have a big impact on the company and a valuable relationship. Make sure these personas NEVER leave the company. You do not want to offend anyone.

Ask the right questions

Time to interview a customer. Ask about goals, needs and behaviour. Nobody cares what Josephine’s favourite color is. You should care about her time spent with your product; when she uses it and why; why she wouldn’t use certain parts; if she uses your competitor’s product; etcetera. Make sure your questions make sense, ask “why?” a couple of times and take feature requests with a grain of salt.

Structure and define

A good persona represents a large and important group of your target audience: 3 to 5 personas are enough. Better paint a broader image than one that is too specific. You can not fulfil everybody’s needs anyway.

Make sure your colleagues know where to look for answers. Tell them where to find the personas, and structure every persona in the same way (see template). Create them in a format that’s easy to adjust. Designers and product managers are more likely to work with personas. If the developers are not ready for this, do not force them.

Prioritise your personas by value to your company. It will make discussions about feature priorities more focused.

Take it easy and iterate

Do not waste all of your time and energy in week one. Your company will change, and your target audience will change. An iterative approach avoids spending time and money on documents you will never use.

In an ideal situation, you create personas at the start of your project, because they inform your strategy. For example, you can aim at 6 interviews with different types of people in the first phase. When you find yourself in a discussion where you discover Josephine is out of fashion or not elaborate enough, you can go to the next phase. Interview some new people to really pin down what Josephine is about. Rewrite personas, and do not be afraid to let go of old ones or invite a new persona into the family — keep the family small enough to maintain though.

Do not make us hate personas

Keep your personas up to date. Make them relevant. Avoid fluffiness. Use them in appropriate situations and do not throw them in everybody’s faces. Ask the right questions. Use your personas to voice your customers’ needs to your stakeholders. Involve them in roadmaps and in feature development.

We can stop personas from haunting our companies and boring our employees. Create them to become living, useful creatures we like having around. Good luck!