Using personas for user-centered product innovation

Can you think of any company or product that appeals to and serves the needs of EVERYONE?

A Ferrari doesn’t work as the car of choice for a suburban family of 6 and a rich celebrity will most likely not buy a regular Hyundai.  Facebook is used by 68% of people in the age group of 50-64 years, however, the usage of Instagram (which is also part of the Facebook family of Apps) for the same age group is only 23%.

31% of households with an annual income of more than $75,000 use a fitness watch/device. However, this number drops to 12% in households with income under $30,000. 

Do you think Ferarri, Hyundai, FB, Apple, Fitbit are aware of these facts? ABSOLUTELY.

Not only do they understand the segments of users their products are most geared towards, any new products or features they create rely on very detailed profiles of the types of users within those segments.

If you are responsible for product innovation in a new space, you have to step into the shoes of the users that you are developing the product for.

What are Personas

Let’s continue with the example above of the fitness tracker and assume that you are creating a new product. You understand that your best segment are households that make $75K or more a year. However to truly live, breathe , understand, empathize, and articulate the needs of the users, you want to create a profile that represents cohorts of users within that segment.

One example of such a profile could be a user who is 35 years old, makes $100k a year, lives in a big city, likes to stay healthy, runs outdoors but works a largely sedentary job at a corporation, and is into fashion. Let’s call that user “Sam”. Sam uses a fitness tracker currently when running outdoors, but also loves to wear a “regular” watch at work because Sam likes it as a fashion accessory as well.

As a product manager, this profile can start to surface needs that may be very useful to design a product that satisfies users like Sam. Perhaps you end up creating a product that has the look of a premium fashionable watch, but lightweight and sweatproof so it can also be used for long runs.

This representative user profile above which includes demographic (who they are), psychographic (what are their motivations), and behavioral (how do they currently behave and function) characteristics is called a User Persona

Why use personas in product innovation

Developing a true understanding of the users and their needs is the biggest reason for using personas.

They help enforce a user-centered, empathetic approach to product innovation.

They can help with not just the discovery of needs, but also their formalization and prioritization. By creating a detailed profile and putting a name (and even face) to this profile, we truly feel connected to the motivations, frustrations, and desires of the users. It can translate the entire product innovation lifecycle into a more personal exercise.

Personas can be used not just for product building, but also for product messaging and marketing. You can use these to develop a competitive strategy by focusing on personas that perhaps your competitors haven’t catered to.

When should we create Personas

We can start to create personas at any stage really, depending on how much we already know about the users and the space we are innovating in. My personal experience has been to create them after some amount of  qualitative + quantitative research, as we start to develop some knowledge of the users. Personas can then really help dive deeper into user needs and priorities.

They should be in line with your vision and competitive strategy and in fact help refine them. Both of them can evolve and so can the personas.

How to create personas

The learnings and insight from any/all of the following methods can be used to create and develop personas

For any new product or service offering there will typically be multiple personas . But the goal should be to identify a primary persona and focus on that especially in early stages.

What dimensions to cover in a persona template

  • Demographic: E.g. Age, gender, location
  • Psychographic: E.g. Motivations, relevant personality traits
  • Behavioral: E.g. Current workflow and corresponding pain points, needs

One shoe doesn’t fit all, so focus on using the attributes that are most relevant for your product. Give a fictional name and picture to each user persona. 

Good personas surface motivations needs and there is a clear difference in multiple personas. Focus on the relevant characteristics and but you don’t need to create a persona for every possible combination. Create the best and most relevant possible representation of a cohort of users. They can/should get updated over time, both in terms of definition and number.

Here’s a link that can be used to download some nice persona templates.

Tips

  • If you only have 1-2 persons, it means you probably need to dive in further and if you have more than 10 (to start with), you’ve probably created too many. Keeping the number to under 5 distinct personas may be a good place to start.
  •  In B2B, you may want to create persons for both your users and their customers (B2B2C)
  • Personas can be incorporate throughout the product innovation lifecycle (build, launch, go to market, and even sales). You can use the same persona end-to-end for your product lifecycle or create different personas for marketing and launch purposes, especially if the buyers are different from the actual users (e.g. for children’s toys, buyers will be parents)
  • You can also create personas before you perform detailed research based on some early assumptions. Then use techniques such as interviews, research, surveys to continue to refine them.

What is the biggest challenge or benefit you’ve experienced while using user personas

6 thoughts on “Using personas for user-centered product innovation

  • Pras Palani

    Very well written article Vipin as usual. opens with a hook with facts & figures & proves the point of knowing the users is vital. Though you are covering needs & wants, ‘Jobs To Be Done’ could also have been included explicitly in the template. Best example of JTBD was in your prev blog post abut McD innovating on milkshakes based on JTBD.

    • Vipin Makhija

      @pras Great points. Needs discovery and articulation is a crucial topic that requires thorough treatment. I will be posting about a couple of frameworks (including JBTD) in the subsequent posts. Developing the user personas is almost a pre-requisite to get that right because each persona will have their own sets of different needs. Stay tuned!

  • Rahul

    This article comes at an interesting time, Vipin – especially when there is a new school of thought being floated in the UX community about the ineffectiveness of personas. The premise of that argument is that the ‘why’ behind creating a persona is not understood by stakeholders. It just becomes an exercise/compliance check to create a persona with oftentimes irrelevant information like ‘Hobbies’ and ‘Proficiency with computers’ (although these may be relevant for some use cases) – which people blindly use as its part of a template.

    When we created personas for our Capstone project, the next day onwards, in all the project meetings we used to refer to the name of the persona to make our point – like “Jack would love this feature because it caters to his need for faster checkout” OR “Jane may find this helpful too considering her need for assistance during checkout”. As a team, we truly related to the persona and I found it helpful.

    • Vipin Makhija

      @rsridhar You raise a very important point. Using it superficially will only result in feeling good about doing the exercise, but may not prove valuable for the goals of the product or business. The same can also apply to almost any method/framework approach. They are available to enforce a deeper, more structured way of innovating and it all begins with understanding the customers(or potential customers) as much as possible. The other big issue with personas is the disconnect between the product management teams and marketing/sales teams. Personas can truly help in the creation of a compelling competitive product strategy.

  • Rosanna

    Very helpful article! Recently I came across some personas definition very narrowed down and more oriented to be built as a real person rather than focusing on the interesting habits of interest for the purpose of the product development or improvement.

    More often I hear talking about a specific category of personas, “buyers” personas, mainly developed by marketing people. Is there an actual difference or just another way to name personas?

    • Vipin Makhija

      @rosanna As briefly mentioned in the post, personas can and should be used by marketing teams to identify the profile of people the product should be marketed to (just like product teams create them to create the profile of people who will be using the product). Buyers personas can be different from product/user personas if the buyers are different from the actual users. For example, you may develop an office product that will be used by employees, but the buying decision is made by the executives at the company.

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