The problem with personas and three creative solutions

In theory, personas are a powerful tool. They help you make better decisions, not just about how to market your product or service, but what it should be in the first place. They take complex data and turn it into actionable insights that shape better experiences for your customers – which means better business performance.

In practice, personas don’t always deliver on this promise. In this post, I’ll look at why personas fail, and share some creative ideas that we’ve come up with for making them a success.

The problem with personas

There seem to be three common reasons why personas lose their power:

  1. They don’t have authority. In many organisations, you come across different sets of personas, created at different times by different teams. Often, the data that underpins them isn’t robust, or it’s out-of-date. (And sometimes there isn’t any data behind them at all.) In the face of a host of contradictory, out-of-date personas, it’s no surprise that they lose credibility, and that people prefer to go with gut instinct about customer needs.
  2. They don’t come with instructions. Personas need a user manual, but often people are given the document and sent on their way. Without a guide on how and when to use them, personas can either be ignored, or ‘retrofitted’ into planning or design to justify decisions that have already been made.
  3. They’re not easy or engaging to use. Typically personas are PDFs languishing on a shared drive, or a poster on a wall that eventually gets tuned out. If you want to get the most out of your personas, you need a format that makes sure they’re useful and usable.

How to make powerful personas

There are two things that you can do to help you avoid these pitfalls and make more powerful personas:

1. Get buy-in

Try to get buy-in from a senior leader, and also from the people who you want to use your personas.

Having senior backing will give your personas the mandate to be the ‘one true’ set for the organisation. They will also give you the clout you need to make the people who you want to use them sit up and pay attention.

It’s also smart to speak to those end users early on. Make sure you understand when, where, how and why they might use them. Once a quarter in a workshop? Every day at their desk? To plan content? To choose an amplification channel? To design a whole new customer proposition? Asking about their needs and how and when they will use them will go a long way towards getting their buy-in. It will also help you with point two…

2. Think utility AND creativity

You should aim for a great user experience for your personas. People should want to use them, and understand how to use them effectively.

In terms of utility, this means using the information you gather when speaking to stakeholders to take a design thinking approach. Don’t make any assumptions about the format – let your user insights lead you. You also need a plan for how you will keep your personas up-to-date.

Thinking about it as a design process will also open up opportunities for creativity. Forget about PDFs and posters, and think about what creative approach will make the data engaging and actionable. High-quality creative can also send a signal that this is an authoritative piece of work.

Three creative ideas for better personas

We spent some time considering this recently and came up with three creative approaches that we think will help make personas a powerful force in your organisation.

1. Persona as graphic novel

The idea: This idea takes the concept of a user story, and adds colour and drama. In this persona, rather than leading with demographic details, we lead with a story. We take the user needs and craft a narrative that contextualises them. Narrative exposition, details in the images, and the visual style provide lots of clues to the persona’s habits and lifestyle. It ends with a cliffhanger, where the brand should be providing a solution to the need; this creates the resolution and finishes the story. You can add new chapters to respond to changing customer needs, and even interweave stories about different personas to create a Marvel-esque universe.

Why it works: Stories are how we understand the world, so creating one around a persona can help people feel empathy and really engage. You can make beautiful printed copies – people will want to read them, pick up new editions and keep them. Digital versions can also be interactive – revealing extra details or data that underpin the story.

2. Persona as chatbot

The idea: Build a standalone chatbot – or integrate it into an existing tool like Slack – that lets people ask questions and engage with your personas. You can create a strong sense of personality with a conversational UI, adding depth as the bot answers questions. It can also include images, videos and links out to further reading. You can update it with new information, and also log what people are asking to help you iterate.

Why it works: I know chatbot fatigue is setting in, but we think that they are both attention-grabbing and a practical way to get people to interact and engage with your persona, as well as giving answers to specific questions. You can update it regularly too.

3. Persona as snooping

The idea: An app or tool that allows people to snoop into the (digital) life of the persona. It would provide a series of ‘over the shoulder’ vignettes, letting you see the feed they scroll through Instagram, the questions they ask and answer on Twitter, the events they sign up for on Facebook, the conversations they have with friends, what they’re searching for. Together, these tell a story and build up a clear picture of the persona’s needs, behaviours and emotions. As with the other ideas, the user can click out to find out more.

Why it works: This immerses the user in the world of the persona. It makes their digital habits really tangible. And again, this is a good balance of a novel format that’s fun, with practical utility and is easy to update.

So to recap, personas are a tool with a lot of potential that all too often goes unrealised. If you want to make them work for you, you need to make sure you get buy-in and really understand the people who will be using them. Finally, you need to design a solution that balances practical utility and brilliant creative.

Get in touch if you want to find out more about how we can help you build better personas.