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Build Better Personas: Three Habits to Break


Build Better Personas: Three Habits to Break

Apr 18, 2016By Voltaire Santos Miran

I had lunch recently with a professional colleague who said that he used personas heavily in the redesign of an international news site. He told me how the project team created names, faces, histories, and demographic details — they even produced life-sized cardboard cutouts for each persona to prop up on chairs around their conference room table.

How did the personas most impact the project?” I asked. He looked at me sheepishly and said, “Well, the best thing about the process was that it reminded our team members that they weren’t designing for themselves.”

Now, that’s an important lesson for people to learn — and relearn. But personas can and should do much more than refocus our priorities.

Properly crafted, personas can help us to develop an insightful and actionable empathy for the people that we’re trying to serve. 

By empathy, I don’t mean that touchy-feely, vague notion of trying to feel what someone else is feeling. In her book “Practical Empathy,” Indi Young states that empathy “is about understanding how another person thinks — what’s going on inside her head and heart. And most importantly, it’s about acknowledging her reasoning and emotions as valid, even if they differ from your own understanding.”

How to make sure that your next persona development effort doesn’t become an exercise in searching stock image banks and parsing minor differences based on demographics? Three things:

[Tweet “Three habits to break if you’re looking to build useful personas for your institution. #mStoner”]

1. Throw Away Your Interview Questions

Good personas find their basis in qualitative research. Good qualitative research comes from rich conversations with real people who have recently lived the journey or experience you’re trying to understand and support. Rich conversations come from active listening and the willingness to let people talk about what’s important to them. In her book “Buyer Personas,” Adele Revella recommends having a single scripted question for each conversation — one that takes the person back to the beginning of the journey and invites them to “tell me what happened.”

2. Pare Down Your Persona List

Let me own up now: I’ve engaged in persona overkill. I remember, in fact, a project that resulted in more than 20 different personas for one education institution. And while that may be justifiable for some institutions, most teams simply can’t research and take action fairly on that many personas. A more sustainable approach would be to develop two to three in-depth personas for your project — ones that represent your largest audiences or the audiences you understand the least.

3. Stop Focusing on the Faces and Colorful Details

The practice of creating names and personal histories stems from the desire to humanize our personas, so that we can better connect with them. The danger in this exercise is that it can encourage sloppy thinking and creative fiction instead of rich conversations with real people. In the worst cases, people focus on psychographic or demographic details that don’t have a material impact on the actual experience or journey. Without the research to guide them, people also may feel compelled to generate additional, unnecessary personas to “be as inclusive as possible.”

Strip away the faces, names, and colorful details in your persona profiles, and see what you have left. If your remaining material provides you with actual quotes that give you insights into your audiences, great! On the other hand, if you’re staring at a mad lib …

Don’t settle for creating caricatures that sometimes pass as personas. Persona development can be a highly rewarding effort if you maintain your focus on the purpose of your work — to understand the feelings, thoughts, and motivations of the people you’re trying to serve. And that understanding is the beginning of wisdom.

In addition to the books that I referenced earlier in this post, you’ll find Indi Young’s “Mental Models” to be very helpful in understanding the generative research process. You also might want to read Ann Handley’s “Everybody Writes.” Her book is a fantastic resource that answers the question, “Now that I know my audience, what’s next?”

What guidelines or techniques have you found helpful in developing personas for your projects? Please share them here or tweet me (@vsantosmiran) using #mStoner.

  • Voltaire Santos Miran EVP, Web Strategy I've developed and implemented communication strategies in education for more than 20 years now. I think my team at mStoner is the smartest, funniest, and coolest group of colleagues ever, and I can't imagine being anywhere else. Except Barcelona. Or Paris. Or Istanbul. To quote Isak Dinesen, "the cure for everything is salt ... tears, sweat, and the sea."