Why you Should Create a Person, not Just a Persona

BY ROISI PROVEN ON JULY 30, 2018

Sarah Collins is 26 years old. She graduated from Nottingham University with a degree in Communications and moved to London. She took a job as a social media manager for a small travel company. She’s having fun, gets to visit new places, and loves her new life in London. However, she feels like something is missing.

Through her job she’s met many strong, opinionated people who she leans on for support. She’s dabbled in the London dating scene but she’s pretty happy being single and surrounded by inspirational friends.

She sat down with one of her close friends and confessed that while she likes the company she works at, she’s not sure if it’s a career she loves. She enjoys engaging with users, but feels the engagement she has is shallow. She just needs to pass it on to another team, never to be heard from again. Her friend asks her if she’s ever considered product management.

Sarah does some research, and finds that she has kindred spirits in the product community. However, the sheer volume of information out there is overwhelming, and it’s not always written in an accessible way. Sarah really wants to learn about this new career opportunity, she might even consider moving jobs in order to do so. She needs something digestible, well organised, and written in a style that she can understand. One day, Sarah finds out about Mind The Product.

This blog is not about Sarah’s experience. Why not?

Sarah Isn’t Real.

“Sarah” is a persona, created for writing a blog about personas. If you’re reading this, there’s a chance that you are Sarah. The above blurb is the minimum I like to know about the type of human my persona/user is. Yet so often, I see personas that look like this:

George
Product Manager
Man
25
Has a house
Eats alfalfa

George isn’t a human, he’s just a collection of vague characteristics that make him feel like a representation of what we want our users to be, rather than a representation of who they are. He eats alfalfa, but does he actually like alfalfa? Does anyone like alfalfa? What motivates George, what drives him? Humans are complex, and by trying to simplify a human down to their base characteristics, we lose what connects us.

George also lacks context. It’s great that I know he has a house and eats alfalfa, but that won’t help me make my blog better. It tells me nothing about his motivations. Yes, George is a product manager, but does he want to be? Why did he decide to be one in the first place? Unless I have something tangible to anchor the disconnected pieces of information, I can’t focus in on improving the experience that user has.

People as Things

Sometimes, a persona gets even further away from humanising the user, and just becomes a manifestation of our own laundry list of requirements. Take the user below, who unfortunately is not enough of a human to be graced with a name.

User
Product Manager
Likes reading blogs
Will read a blog for 10 minutes or more
Will leave a comment on blogs they like

If we were to use this persona for development purposes, we would prioritise a reading time marker, and a comment mechanism. However, we leave so much about the user unanswered that once we’ve built these things, we realise that by losing the nuance of the user’s motivations we don’t create a product that is fit for purpose.

Our writers optimise for 10 minute blogs which lose casual browsers and newbies like our original persona Sarah, who is new to Product Management and becomes overwhelmed by longer reads. We have a comment section, but it is unmoderated and quickly becomes a cesspit as comment sections are wont to do. We haven’t pleased our users, because the core of what we used to build didn’t sound like a person at all.

How can we Work Differently?

So how do we start to work differently when generating a persona? As humans we have confirmation bias that things will be exactly as we expect them to be. As product managers, it is our job to always be fighting against these biases so that we can create a product that fits the market, not one that fits us.

So start by telling a story of the type of person you want to use your product. An example is Sarah, our persona from the first section. You can keep the key demos the same, but make them as far from you as possible in subtle ways, so when dealing with them you don’t unconsciously associate them with yourself when using the persona. Sarah graduated from university, where I’m a high school drop-out. She’s happily single and I’m happily engaged.

These points of difference don’t change the type of customer they are, but they make them distinctly different from you. Once I have someone I can identify with but who isn’t me, I can start to build product-driven motivations into the persona. At this point, the key is to avoid solutionizing within the persona. If we look at nameless user, “will read a blog for 10 minutes or more” gives weight to a feature and even adds constraints to it. The user needs should fit naturally into the story you’re telling, whilst not leading the witness too much during development.

People are Hard

The hardest part of a product manager’s job is not necessarily understanding the product, but understanding people. We are expected to take human motivation, the least measurable thing in the world, and figure out ways to measure it to decide whether or not a product is working.

It’s tempting to try to encapsulate everything you want to achieve in the personas you create. You make the tasks within the personas more and more granular, hoping to bottle the lightning that strikes with a perfect product-market fit.

But that misses the point of what personas are supposed to represent. People. The wonderful, amazing thing about people is how unpredictable they are, and how they never do what you expect. One thing I picked up working in QA, is that no matter how weird I act when testing a product, there will always be a user who manages to do something weirder.

As product managers, we need to embrace the weird and focus our efforts on humanising our potential users. While it may not be as specific, by empathising with our users we can target our output more closely to fit in with their actual lives.

About ROISI PROVEN

Roisi is currently the Product Manager for Gower Street analytics, a data science company helping the film industry make data-driven decisions. She has spent over a decade in tech, working across the entire ecosystem in test, design and management. Roisi loves cats and hates talking about herself in the third person.