Answering Questions About Customers with Personas

By Jeff Sauro

Personas provide details to important questions that a customer cannot define: How can you make your product easier to use? What is your product’s top task? What motivates customers to use this specific product over a competitor’s? How do you develop a successful marketing strategy for the product?

By using a persona to answer these questions, design and marketing teams can actually be in the user’s shoes, and can better meet a real user’s needs and wants. The following scenario illustrates how personas make that possible.

Will Swanson is a 52-year-old civil engineer working for a consulting firm involved with multiple projects in China. He travels to Beijing or Shanghai at least once every two months, always flying from Chicago.

Additionally, once a year, Will and his wife (Sarah) fly to Hawaii for a week to visit his parents. Will routinely flies with United Airlines and usually pays for his flights online using his United credit card. He visits the United website about once every two weeks.

Laurie O’Reilly is a 30-year-old K-12 English teacher who lives in Albany, NY. Once a year, carrying coloring books and pencils, she flies to Florida with her husband (Ben) and their two young children. There, they enjoy some family time in the sun. Twice, Laurie found a special deal and they went to the Bahamas instead.

Laurie has some flexibility around her traveling dates, which enables her to look for the best prices. She does not own an airline credit card, but she does buy tickets on the Internet. She does not have any special preferences for United Airlines; however, she visits the website about once every two months to check ticket prices.

Will and Laurie are very different personas; they will not answer questions in the same way. An example of a question could be, “What is the most important feature of the United Airlines website?” For Will, the website’s most important feature is to allow him to quickly find the exact flight that he needs: right time, right destination, no layover.

For Laurie, the most important feature is the ability to find the best possible deal: She is flexible with time and exact destination and does not mind layovers, but she wants to pay as little as possible. Therefore, if both of the customer segments represented by these personas are to be satisfied, both of these tasks need to be easy to perform (without getting in the way of one another).

United Airlines’ marketing team can also use Will and Laurie’s personas to segment the airlines’ customers and reach them in different ways. Will is likely to be more responsive to emails promoting special frequent flyer benefits, while Laurie might appreciate time-sensitive emails from United, alerting her when there has been a price drop on family-friendly beach destinations, such as Florida or the Caribbean.

This is just a simple example of how personas enable you to efficiently and effectively understand, identify, and communicate what the user needs. Usability testing is another strategy to identify specific opportunities to improve, innovate on, and bridge the gaps to make sure you are delivering a fully functional and usable product.

Another example of a product designed for one user that reached a surprisingly wide audience is the GoPro camera prototyped and developed by surfer Nicholas Woodman. Woodman designed a wrist strap with an attached video camera to record himself surfing. He hoped to produce professional quality footage of himself while on the water.

For that task, he had very specific needs: a camera that had a very wide viewing angle, that was waterproof, that could be positioned in different ways, and that was not too expensive. He soon realized that he would have to design not only the wrist strap, but also the camera.

Focusing only on his own specific needs, Nicholas Woodman had created a product that was perfect for millions of other amateurs like him. It exceeded its original market, California’s surf culture, and is now sold to snowboarders, skiers, social activists, and countless others all over the world.

While most products are not designed by the user, similar results can be obtained with a persona-centered perspective.