In a past life I consulted as a design strategist. For those of you who are unaware of what a design strategist actually does, they help businesses remove themselves from their day-to-day world and encourage them to take a future view of their business – using Design (capitalization intentional – design in the wider sense of the word) to look at all aspects of their business – from product to customer relations, from administration to branding.
One valuable tool which we utilized was that of personas. According to Wikipedia;
Personas are fictitious characters that are created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic that might use a site or product. Personas are most often used as part of a user-centered design process for designing software or online applications, in which the goals, desires, and limitations of the user are considered when designing the product. They are also considered a part of interaction design (IxD). Personas are useful in helping to guide decisions about a product, such as features, interactions, and visual design.
A definition that I am wholly comfortable with.
I was reminded of personas recently when I read an opinion piece by the CEO of Xero, Rod Drury. Xero is a SaaS accounting company that considers itself to be design-led and Rod told of his experience using Persona Driven Marketing (PDM). PDM seeks to take the perspective of different types of product users, and tailor the promotion and selling decisions based on the messages derived from the personas.
I was stoked to see Xero embrace personas but I commented urging caution for other companies considering PDM. PDM is only effective when coupled with a design-led philosophy. In fact it is my opinion that PDM can only be truly effective when coupled with persona led design – that is the utilisation of customer archetypes to inform the design direction of the product, the marketing and all aspects of the business operation. As I commented on the original post;
Personas are great (I used to do design strategy consulting where we used personas to design all aspects of a business – from product to marketing to CRM) but I can’t help but think that persona led marketing, without similarly attuned whole-of-business perspective is flawed. (and no – I’m not saying that Xero is guilty of this – just making a point).
Persona driven marketing, without the other business aspects, can end up being not much more than spin. In my experience where personas really start to shine is when they’re used to ideate at every level of the business. I remember facilitating a design strategy group for a manufacturing business and witnessing the magic when the team started looking at their showroom and customer service through the eyes of their personas.
Even better is when the personas can be used to ideate products years (and sometimes decades) out…
Sound airy fairy? Well it is, but it works.
The fact of the matter is that all businesses (big or small, software or otherwise) find it difficult to step back and look at the bigger picture – they’re too close to their operation to make truly arms-length decisions. I liken this to when we proof-read a piece of writing. You can proof something you’ve written yourself ad infinitum – the mistakes will glaze over and look correct to you. However the same piece, proofed by someone else (or written by someone else and proofed by yourself) will have a completely different result. It’s this fresh perspective, outside view and arms length assessment that gives quality and freshness of vision.
So software companies – get distant, your products, your customer experience and your business as a whole will benefit.
See more of my thought on design in general;