What Are Personas?

Not familiar with personas? You are hardly alone. In theatre, a persona (Latin for “mask”) referred to a role played by an actor. In real life, we hear the term to mean the social representation people put on display for one another. In product development, a persona is a detailed representation of a fictitious, yet realistic user who helps us understand the needs, skills, and goals of our real users.
The purpose of the persona is to empower the product decision makers – developers, product managers, marketing and executives – to empathize with the user so they naturally make good decisions for the user and thereby produce a consistent, usable product that meets the users’ needs, matches their skills, suits their environment and fulfills their desires.
Personas are particularly useful to development organizations because they:
  • Bring a common user, his needs, skills, goals and his environment to the entire development team in a life-like fashion which helps the developers make good judgments while working
  • Empower the developers with a carefully chosen user to empathize with, virtually eliminating edge cases
  • Unify the product team around a common, natural language of the user, thus improving the quality and tone of design and implementation discussions
  • Focus the development team on a single situation, empowering the collaborative environment to naturally build a product that has consistent, predictable behaviors and a strong character

Additionally, personas are very useful to marketing as they inform marketing and sales of the needs and biases related to the buyer. (Remember, the buyer isn’t always the user.)
Personas aren’t a one size fits all concept. Every product or product line will have its own set of personas based on:
  • The users
  • The market
  • The buyers
  • The competitors
  • The product roadmap

While a product’s set of personas should be quite small, they may include the following:
  • Primary personas, or the representation of the primary user of each major interface
  • Secondary personas, or the representation of additional users (with different needs, skills and goals) of each primary interface
  • Negative personas, or the representation of users who’s needs, skills or goals the interface is explicitly not going to address
  • Buyer personas, or the representation of the buyers needs, biases and goals.

While it can be a bit of work to discover “the right” personas for your products, I strongly recommend everyone in product development, product management and marketing have a well chosen set.

Mini Cooper Persona (an example)

Let me start by saying, "I love my Mini Cooper S." Best-Car-Purchase-Ever.
When I bought my Mini, the dealer told me there was no demographic particular to the Mini. I wondered if that was bunk at the time, since all those dealers seemed pretty sure of themselves. Since then, I've wondered if he was telling the truth. Maybe there was no demographic -- certainly, when I see other Mini drivers waving at me, they appear quite varied in age, sex and interests. Even if there is no demographic, it is clear there is a distinct buyer persona for the Mini Cooper. I'll call him Fred.

Fred wants:

  • A small, fuel efficient car that supports the lifestyle of someone with a full-sized car. Kudos to the engineers at BMW for creating a tiny vehicle that fits Fred, a large active dog, a child (or a golfbag) and luggage/groceries inside. The wife/girlfriend fits if there aren't more than 3 bags.
  • A car that helps him broadcast a youthful, slightly hip, alternative, independent and quite fun, attitude -- even if he is none of those things in reality.
  • A very good handling vehicle. Fred can trade a bit of performance and not buy the S or a bit of handling and buy the convertible. If Fred wants the convertible, he must accept a bit of additional weight and stiffness, but less that with most convertible cars.
  • A safe vehicle. The car aced the safety tests and is manufactured by BMW.
  • Good snow handling. With the money Fred doesn't spend on the Mini, he can buy a 2nd set of rims and snowtires.
  • A price less than $30k.
  • And Fred is shocked to find the Mini Cooper has all of these qualities in a price/performance ratio that puts any other car being considered to shame. Therefore, Fred is willing to accept:
  • Traction control rather than AWD (because of the $15k lower cost).
  • Minor finish details (for example, my right heel falls into a hole at the edge of the carpet as I stand up to get out of the car)
    in exchange for the above.
In a nutshell, Fred is willing to tolerate some minor finish details and manage without AWD in order to drive a stylish, safe, classic, BMW performance vehicle that can always find a parking space in the city. And he still has money in the bank. As long as Mini makes Fred happy, the Cooper S will keep selling.

  1. Product Personas
  2. An introduction to personas