There’s lots of good reasons to use customer personas in product design, there’s lots of good reasons not to. For me, the successful use of personas is dependent on data, purpose, and pliability.

Persona aren’t a excuse not to talk to customers, they are a result of getting to know them

It starts with data

I’ve seen personas drawn up as “our ideal customer”. This approach is already off the rails. Aspirational personas won’t lead you to real solutions.

Instead, start by talking to people. Reach out to happy customers, mad customers, former customers, and potential customers. Write down a standard set of questions, but allow the interviewer leeway to dig into answers. You’ll uncover things you may not have considered if you start with that ideal customer.

No access to customers?

As a freelancer and consultant, I’ve sometimes hit a wall trying to talk directly with customers. You can mitigae the lack of real data by interviewing stakeholders and the sales team. They’ll have a lot of collected knowledge about the customers. Be on the lookout for bias and assumptions that aren’t supported by facts. Try to drill down on anything that seems fishy until you get to their underlying motivations.

Now that you’ve collect some information it’s time to make some sense of it all

Collate that data

Using the collected customer data, create sticky notes (or equivalent). As you see patterns emerge, group them together. A group will consist of similar answers, concerns, and pain points. From these groups, begin to develop representative customer personas.

Design the Personas

Aim to create 3-5 personas. You aim is to profiles that are realistic and representative. You’ll use to the keep your team’s direction aligned and grounded.

Persona Template

Divide a pice of paper in the four quadrants and grab a Sharpie. This is going be your working template. It’s meant to change. Also, keep it low fidelity. You (probably) won’t be showing this to board of directors.

North West Quadrant — Identity:

Draw a picture of the customer and name them. Don’t over think this. You’ll need an easy way to refer back to them.

North East Quadrant - SITUATION & ENVIRONMENT:

When, where, and how the customer interacts with your product

South East Quadrant - WHAT THEY NEED:

List customers goals and what defines successful outcomes for this customer. They should in scope with what our product can do. e.g. “Make me happy”, is out of scope, but “fast checkout” is possible.

South West Quadrant - PAIN POINT:

List why the current solution isn’t satisfying this customer’s needs. Or what tasks are particularly frustrating for them.

So… what now?

Use what you’ve learned

Hang the personas on the wall and/or publish with the project. As you design features, work flows, and storyboards, test them against your personas. It can be tempting to change to persona based to fit a design solution, but seriously, don’t! If a solution isn’t working for a persona, there is a high likelihood it won’t work in real life either.