A persona is a fictitious person created for the purpose of helping designers and decision makers understand how people actually experience their interactions with a product, service, or organization. The use of personae was popularized by Alan Cooper in the book “The Inmates are Running the Asylum.” In this critique of the software development industry, Cooper recommends the use of personae to help developers get a practical, visceral feel for the ways users think and behave. Since that time, the use of personae has become very popular in a wide variety of product and user interface design applications. Personae are given a name (Bob, Sue, etc…) and a set of richly described characteristics, situations, goals, pain points, and behaviors that are relevant to the design. For any given application, there are usually a relatively small set of personae that characterize the range of users or customers. Cooper has suggested that one persona is usually sufficient.
The benefits of personae in understanding and designing distinctive customer experiences are substantial. Typically executive leaders and functional managers do not have a clear and concrete understanding of how their customers experience the world and, more specifically, their interactions with the client’s organization. Personae are powerful because they put a specific human face on often abstract customer information. In this way, they are fundamentally different than customer or market segments, which are generally shared characteristics of categories of customers. This “human face” makes it easier to make decisions and design tradeoffs with an understanding of how what you do either fits or doesn’t fit for the customer.
One of the best examples of using personae for customer experience design is Best Buy, who made substantial changes to their store design, merchandise assortment, training, etc… based on the definition four customer personae. In particular, they started to shift elements of the experience design to work for the persona they called Jill. Jill is a soccer mom that does most of the shopping for her family but is intimidated by electronics stores.
Unfortunately, the way most organizations develop personae appears to be very loose; more of an art than a science. The generally accepted best practice is that personae should be based on solid ethnographic research with customers. However, sometimes persona are just made up based on what the team thinks they know about customers (because they know so much about them already!). Assuming research is done, the process of turning research findings into personae is also very loose. Typically, common themes across customers are identified and clustered in a creative process that generates a plausible enough set of personae. In addition, details are usually added to these personae in a way that “rounds them out” and makes them more believable.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve been trying to address the lack of rigor in personae development. Our starting place for this was our emphasis on designing from “mental model of the customer” rather than the “mental model of the company.” Not only does this perspective address the same basic objective as customer personae but the idea of defining personae precisely based on elements of a mental model is appealing. It also provides a means of deciding how many personae are needed since the only reason to have different personae would be because there were relevant and substantial differences in the mental models of two different types of customer.
Our working definition of Cognitive Customer Personae include models that capture: what the customer is trying to accomplish; the end-to-end behaviors the customer typically performs to accomplish those things; a structure of beliefs and temperamental characteristics that drive their rational and emotional reactions to their experience. Each one of these personae is described by four models that are described in more detail with a few examples in the post titled: Cognitive Ergonomics: Designing Customer Experiences that Fit with Customers’ Mental Model.