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Product Development with User Personas

jacobmparis profile image Jacob Paris ・5 min read

Products live and die by the hands of their customers.

If your users don't find value in what you're building, they won't use it. If your customers find less value than what you're charging, they won't buy it.

While I use words like business and customer, this also applies to non-commercial projects. The customer is whoever uses your product, and I will use customer and user interchangeably.

There are few feelings more enjoyable than the feeling you get after you've built a product that people love to use. But how do we do that?

How do we get from an idea, in our heads, to a business, product, or feature, that our customers will love to use?

By talking to customers.

By getting to know who they are, what they need, and which problems they actually face day-to-day, you begin to see problems from the customer's point of view, and that's the knowledge you need to drive your development.

It is easier for you to learn your customer well enough to solve their problems than it is for your customer to learn your craft well enough to solve their own.

User Research

"There are no facts inside the building. So get outside!" ~ Steve Blank

User research is a broad category that encompasses every bit of learning that helps you understand your customer.

Discovery interviews, usability tests, and surveys all count, but so does real-world experience. If you've been working in an industry long enough to see a problem and come up with a solution, that is tangible user research at its purest.

There are many techniques for researching your customers, but it all comes down to getting in front of the kind of person who is going to be using your product.

For each of these types of users, keep track of their info in a persona.

User Personas

Personas are the interface between customer development and product development. A persona refers to a fictional specific customer who represents the archetype of similar users.

As you learn more about your different customers, you can refine and improve the quality of your personas, and you will that information to drive product development decisions every step of the way.

The first step is to brainstorm all the types of customers you could have. For example, a generic dating site's customers might be people:

  • looking for marriage
  • looking for relationships
  • looking for friends
  • looking for one-night stands

and within each of those categories (which might overlap with one-another) you have all the different things people are looking for

  • similar activities
  • similar taste in movies
  • similar career
  • specific physical attributes
  • specific social class / financial status

— you can see how this can get exhaustive pretty quickly. But that serves a purpose too: by considering everyone who might use our product, we can consciously decide whose needs we're going to focus on.

"You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time".

Building a Persona

A good persona is highly detailed, indicative of a specific type of customer, and contains enough factual and emotional information to drive product decisions.

You can use statistics and surveys to help craft them, but remember to make them realistic. The average number of children per household in your neighbourhood might be 2.3, but there are zero mothers who have 2.3 children. For your persona, pick either 2 or 3.

Imagine we're creating an app that keeps track of everyone's favourite coffee at various coffee shops. If you have a large social circle, it can be hard to remember who likes black coffee, and who likes decaf.

Unless one of your friends drinks a Wayne Gretzky (for anyone outside of 🇨🇦, that's nine sugars, nine creams), their order probably isn't very memorable. Everyone remembers their own coffee order, so our initial customer segment is people who buy coffee for their peers.

What kind of people are those?

  • employees buying for coworkers
  • event host buying for attendees
  • person buying for spouse/friend

Most people who buy regularly for a single person will remember the order, so we can remove them as a major customer segment

What are the ways people buy coffee?

  • coffee beans, grind and brew at home
  • coffee grounds, brew at home
  • coffee pods, brew at home
  • coffee pods, brew at work
  • buy from coffee shop, in person
  • buy from coffee shop, via drive-thru

While some people will be making their own coffee, their needs are sufficiently different so our focus will be on strictly those buying coffee ready to go.

Where do people buy coffee?

  • Starbucks
  • Tim Hortons
  • McDonald's
  • Convenience Stores

This list will be kept very short for brevity. Since Starbucks has a huge assortment of fancy coffee names, sizes, and styles in several different languages, down to gas stations that might just have a single machine with two flavours of creamer, it's important to consider where we are when placing this order.

Example Personas

Name: Jacob
Age: 18
Occupation: Welder's Helper
Favourite Coffee: White Hot Chocolate

Description: Jacob isn't very good at coffee. He doesn't drink it, so the coffee shop is an intimidating place filled with foreign languages.

As a welder's helper, he works with different welders all the time, sometimes rotating back to people he's worked with before.

At break time, he often drives out to the nearby convenience store for snacks, and his supervisor will request a coffee. Even after clarification, that "if I ask just for a coffee, they'll know what that means?", upon ordering he is interrogated with questions like "light, medium, or dark roast?"

Jacob just wants to make it through the day without having to answer questions he doesn't know the answer to

That was a true story. I've always felt like everyone else was born with this set of basic knowledge that somehow passed me by.

Name: Erin
Age: 29
Occupation: Secretary
Favourite Coffee: Orange Mocha Frappuccino

Description: Erin is the best at what she does—the phones are answered within three rings, and every document is meticulously filed. By the time the bosses know they need something, she has it ready to go. Before a big meeting, she uses the company credit card to buy everyone involved their coffee of choice so they're at the top of their game.

But as the company grows, bigger than before, it gets harder and harder to keep track of all these different people. And when she's on holiday, her temporary replacement has a hard enough time keeping up with her regular duties, not to mention orchestrating all those coffee orders.

Erin wants to take the effort out of remembering all these orders and to have an easy way of sharing that information

When you first write a persona it can be helpful to anonymize a specific potential customer you've interviewed, and flesh it out from there as you learn.

Here's an example of a persona concept by UI/UX Designer Angel Martinez

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