I mentioned in my post on user matrices that I’d be blogging more about personas, and how you can use them to get inside your customer’s* mind.

Personas are an underused tool that almost anyone can benefit from using. They’re an amazing framework for helping us get outside our own heads and unpacking our assumptions and biases – and when you’re creating something that you want other people to benefit from, it helps a lot to spend some time seeing it from their perspective. How they see the benefits and value of your product or service, for example, may be very different from how you see them.

I’ve seen this a lot with software and web apps. To use a simple example, an engineer might agonize over architecture and APIs, while most customers focus first on speed and interface design. Of course, the two are intertwined, but when it comes to prioritizing what goes into your MVP, odds are your API can wait for the next release.

But while the tech industry spends a lot of time thinking about end users (or at least, a lot of time talking about them), I’m a big believer that anyone who makes or sells anything – even ideas – should be working with personas. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve seen them used in real estate, and I used them when I wrote a book – there’s no reason your restaurant, clothing line, or online marketing course shouldn’t have some personas as well.

Let me add this: A lot of people in marketing use personas. Personas are great tools for marketers, but they’re even better tools for product designers. If you’re not thinking hard about your end users during the product design stage, you are doing it wrong.

Most of us, if we’re remotely empathetic people, do this intuitively: We come up with a business idea, we immediately imagine who would benefit from it, and we hold a little focus group inside our heads.

Personas help you flesh out that process & do it more systematically. They’ll help you identify opportunities you hadn’t noticed before, potential pitfalls to avoid, and points of resistance you’ll need to overcome.

Here’s my quick-and-dirty recipe.

1. Come up with two or three broad customer segments.

Take your customer base and divvy it up into a small number of groups – no more than 4 to start with. You should be able to describe them in 5 words or fewer, e.g. “Techies,” “DIY-ers,” “Contemporary Design Aficionados,” “Wall Street A-Type,” etc. It’s OK if they sound like stereotypes for now; you’ll add more detail and dimension shortly.

If you come up with more than four, cross off the group(s) you know are secondary. You can always come back to them later.

Questions to ask yourself: What kinds of people will this appeal to? Who are the people most likely to appreciate the value of my offering, and be willing to commit to it (by making a purchase, joining your cause, etc.)?

2. Pick your biggest segment and give him/her a name.

The name is important, because as soon as you choose a name, your persona comes alive.

It’s also utterly unimportant, so don’t sweat it too much. What matters isn’t which name you choose, but the sheer act of naming. When in doubt, go to LinkedIn and pick a random combination of first & last names from the people you know. Michelle… Wong: Good enough! Don’t sweat this step too much. Just make sure each persona has a name that’s different from the others.

3. Jot down the things you already know for sure about her.

If you know this customer segment is comprised of 30-40 year old women, make her 35 and female. Likely to live in a major city in the US? Pick one and make that her residence. Level of education, hobbies, type of home… whatever the common threads that unite your customers are, fill ’em in.

Don’t get too carried away yet. There’s more to come, but for now we just want the absolute bare-bones details – the things you already know for sure.

4. Flesh out the persona using an Empathy Map.

With a giant hat-tip to XPLANE, the brilliant pioneers in visual thinking… and a note that it can be helpful to draw this out on paper or a whiteboard, to call forth your right-brain skills. (You can also learn how to build one in Google Drive via this post, or use this template.)

An empathy map answers these questions:

  • What does she SAY & DO? (attitude in public, appearance, behaviour towards others)
  • What does she THINK & FEEL? (core values, major preoccupations, worries & aspirations)
  • What does she HEAR? (what friends say, what influencers say)
  • What does she SEE? (environment, friends, what the market offers)
  • What is the PAIN she wants to avoid? (fears, frustrations, obstacles)
  • What is the GAIN she hopes to achieve? (wants/needs, measures of success)

5. Repeat steps 2-4 for your remaining segments.

I like to do them in order of priority, i.e. biggest & highest-priority segment first, smallest & lowest-priority last.

Bonus Rounds: If you want to dive deeper

I usually stop here. But there are other layers you can add to your personas. For one, there’s the user matrices I mentioned previously.

There’s also an old-ish, but still very relevant, article over at Boxes & Arrows by George Olsen that goes into serious depth about his persona design process, and that contains a link to his personal toolkit (an 18-page PDF) for the process. Personally, I find his methodology intimidatingly thorough, and can’t quite imagine filling in every category in the toolkit – but I don’t think that’s his intention. Rather, it’s an amazing resource for checking that you haven’t overlooked a significant detail in your personas that could be a factor in their decision to work with you.

If there’s enough interest in this topic, I’ll write more about it (and in particular, how the Empathy Map works) – so if you have questions or feedback, I’d love to hear them.

* If “customer” doesn’t work for you, you can substitute user, member, stakeholder, reader, etc. etc. – I’ll stick with customer for simplicity’s sake. But personas are definitely valuable in contexts beyond consumer-oriented, transactional ones. Nonprofits can use them to think about members, volunteers, and other stakeholders; artists and designers can work with them to think about audiences; healthcare practitioners to think about patients; and so on and so forth.