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Persona-bly Speaking

September 24, 2009 3 comments

Recently, there has been much tweetage amongst the #prodmgmt community in the Twitterverse on the subject of personas.

It all started innocently enough when @bstnmelody tweeted “Need help from #prodmgmt cmmty. Translating customer interviews => personas. Any1 have framework they like besides Pragmatic?”  As when any of us in the community ask a question, there are many to step forward and offer advice and point us in the direction of reference materials (and that’s what makes the #prodmgmt community so great).  However, when @ms5 responsed with the  “I have an easy “framework”, if I can call it that! Just don’t do personas – they’re mostly a waste of time…” , a firestorm quickly followed.

Many in the #prodmgmt community, myself included, called @ms5 out for his bold statement that personas are a waste time.  We dove straight in and defended the honour of persona’s – reminding all of their value in software development, both for buyers and for users.

The risk of any electronic communication, especially when limited to 140 characters like we are in Twitter, is that sometimes what you intended to say is misinterpreted and that may be the case here.  As Michael was forced to defend himself against a claim that by not writing persona’s that he didn’t care about customer needs or that if you don’t do persona’s you cannot be successful.

However, what he seemed to really mean was that writing persona’s was a waste of time because people didn’t use them correctly and as such were not worth the time and effort spent to create them. (Michael, if I misinterpreted your point please correct me)

To me, this seems like the wrong approach.  Instead of tackling the problem head-on and figuring out where they went wrong, it seems like they took a defeatist stance – “if we can’t do it right, we won’t do it at all”.

I’m not going to go into a lot of details on why personas are valuable.  There have already been a number of other blog postings on the subject.  You can check out @jidoctor’s blog postings here and here for some insightful comments.

So, what are the problems with some personas and why might be creating them a waste of time?

  • The persona contains too much irrelevant details – the best personas I’ve seen get straight to the point – they describe what the person needs to do, how they do it today, how they get their information and some other characteristics that might drive how they accept and use technology.  Whatever it is that you need to make the right decisions for your product.  Don’t waste time defining a back-story for the person, what they like to do on weekends, what they had for lunch etc.  unless it really will help.  However, on the flip side, making them too generic won’t be useful either
  • Buyer personas vs. user personas – I’ve seen people try and use one set of persona’s to do both.  Unless your software is going to be used by the person who is signing the contract and paying the money, you need to understand the unique needs of both.  Buyer personas describe who the buyer is, what their challenges are, how they make decisions, how they buy software etc.  User personas describe the person who will be at the other end of the keyboard.
  • Writing one persona to describe all your users – the product that I am Product Manager for has many different users.  Each uses the system for different purposes.  Lumping them all together as one persona would be a waste of my time and would largely be unusable.
  • Writing personas without really understanding your user – are you writing based on the marketing materials and how people think the software will be used or have you been in front of your perspective and current users to truly understand their needs and challenges.  Writing from afar could be a waste of time
  • Writing them but not using them.  As @jidoctor blogged – “you put them on the shelf”.  Of course, putting in any amount of time and energy on something that is not used is a waste of time.

How are we using them?

  • Defining and describing the various users of our product – making sure that when we add or enhance functionality that we ensure that the solution addresses how they would use the software and what they need to do in way that makes sense to them.  Knowing our user has eliminated many hours of “debate”, allows development to focus and results in software that is well received by the user.
  • Understanding our buyers – what their pains are, how they buy software etc.  This has allowed Marketing and Sales to focus their efforts, concentrate on messages and collateral that is relevant and well understood.
  • To refine our technical documentation – how does the user of each guide want to reference the documentation, how do they learn, what do they need – do they want specific step by step instruction or instruction in context of what they need to achieve.  The documentation becomes worth the “paper it is printed on” (we actually don’t provide hardcopy, but you get the point)

Now, I’m not saying that writing personas is the only way to communicate “customer” needs, but when done correctly and used they can be indispensable.  I would be interested in hearing more from those who have not had the same experience.

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Categories: Personas