Understanding Your Customer - A Tactical Guide

January 15, 2021

Design thinking, at its core, is a human-centric process that focuses on what's most important for users, finds ways to evolve existing products, and generates new ideas. So, it makes sense that utilizing its processes will help you better understand and satisfy your customers' needs by providing them with remarkable user experiences.

It's Persona(l)

Personas And Why They Are Important To Understanding Your Customer

While you cannot know how each individual will use your tech, design thinking's human-centered design process has a solution. This involves collecting research data and personifying certain trends and patterns as personas. Personas are fictional characters, which you create based upon your research to represent the different user types that might use your service, product, site, or brand similarly. Personas make the design task at hand less complicated, they guide your ideation processes, and they can help you to achieve the goal of creating a good user experience for your target user group.

Creating personas is essential as it makes your customer real and helps your team:

  • Develop a deeper understanding of their needs and how to solve them

  • Guide the development process by creating features that help them achieve their desired outcomes

  • Maintain the customer-centric vision across the organization

Creating personas ensures that you ask the right questions and answer them in line with the users' needs for which you are designing. For example, "How would Susan or Mike experience, react, and think, feel, do and say?"

Lene Nielsen, Ph.D., outlines in her publication, Personas - User-Focused Design, three potential types of perspectives for your personas.

  1. Goal-Directed Personas: This persona focuses on what the typical user wants to do with my product.

  2. Role-Based Personas: The role-based perspective is also goal-directed but includes behavior and role within the organization.

  3. Engaging Personas: Engaging personas can incorporate both goal and role-directed personas and the more traditional rounded personas.

What A Good Persona Looks Like

Adobe shares that while it's easy to select a set of user characteristics and call it a persona, it's hard to create personas that are truly effective design and communication tools.

  • Personas reflect real user patterns. Personas aren't fictional guesses at what a target user thinks. Every aspect of a persona's description should be tied back to real data (observed and researched).

  • A persona focuses on the current state (how users interact with a product), not the future (how users will interact with a product).

  • A persona is context-specific (it's focused on the behaviors and goals related to the specific domain of a product).

What makes Up Your Personas?

While personas are fictional, they are not invented. At the core of all good personas is the data you collect that will provide insights into the users for which you are developing your products.

Collecting Your Data

  • Secondary Research - There is a wealth of data to be found about users and customers on the web. Statista.com provides reports, research, and tools on a wide variety of topics.

  • Primary Market Research - While the secondary data can provide you a framework, there is nothing like primary research to best understand your customer. Primary market research tools include:

    • One-on-One Interviews - Talking with individuals is a vital part of the persona development process. Sometimes, as under current conditions, it is not possible to meet face to face, but video conferencing can be extremely useful, especially as they allow you to record interviews (with interviewee permission, of course) for future reference.

    • Contextual Interviews - Allow you to observe users in their environment, providing a better understanding of the way they work.

    • Focus Groups - Moderated discussion with a group of users that helps you learn about the users' needs, attitudes, and ideas.

    • Surveys - A series of questions asked to multiple users in person or online to gain insights into the users' needs, attitudes, and ideas.

Analyze Your Data

Once you have collected a significant amount of data, you will begin to gain insights into your users. You will see some similarities and differences between your users. At this point, you will also begin to formulate hypotheses about the members of your target group and start to see segmentation.

Test Your Hypotheses

In a perfect world, you would test the findings from your qualitative studies utilizing quantitative methods. These can be time-consuming, costly, and can require specialized expertise. These factors may prevent some cash-strapped startups from conducting such in-depth studies. Connecting with a development team that has expertise in your industry can provide valuable resources.

Formulating Personas

How many personas do you need? You may develop one or more personas from the segmentation that you saw when you analyzed your data, but it is best to focus on the primary users of your tech. Strive to create at most three to four personas. Two is even better. Your goal in creating personas is not to address the needs of every user, but rather the essential needs of your most influential users.

Once you have your data collected and analyzed, Usability.gov outlines the following steps to creating your personas.

  • Brainstorm - Organize elements into persona groups that represent your target users. Name or classify each group.

  • Refine - Combine and prioritize the rough personas. Separate them into primary, secondary, and, if necessary, complementary categories. You should have roughly 3-5 personas and their identified characteristics.

  • Make them realistic: Develop the appropriate descriptions of each personas background, motivations, and expectations. Do not include a lot of personal information. Be relevant and serious; humor is not appropriate

Key Characteristics To Include

  • Persona title - i.e., type of user
  • Fictional name
  • Job title and significant responsibilities
  • Specific demographics such as age, gender, education, ethnicity, and marital/family status, place of residence
  • Interests/Hobbies
  • Values/Beliefs
  • Position in social circles
  • Media consumption
  • Technical abilities
  • Years of professional experience
  • Goals or the jobs-to-be-done
  • Pain points that drive their motivation and behavior
  • A photo that represents the persona

Dan Brown suggested in his book, Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning, that it is essential to organize persona information in an easily read, logical format. Depending on the amount of user research you were able to conduct and the nature of your organization, personas may be laid out in a number of ways, including:

  • The Narrative - Best for stakeholders who are not so concerned about the technical details of user needs.

  • The Table - Best for designers who need an easy way to compare designs to user needs.

  • The Quick-And-Dirty - Best in situations where personas lack sufficient research.

Set The Scene

Personas tell you much about your potential user and your market but only tell part of the story of how your product is used. It is like reading about the characters in a book with no setting or plot. This is where user scenarios come in. They help paint the picture, give the development team a better understanding of complex user interactions, outline what will address the unique pain points of a persona, and what it will take to achieve their desired outcome. Scenarios are the engine we use to drive our designs—shares "UX influencer, Kim Goodwin, in a Webstock '17 presentation.

Tell Me A Story

With fleshed-out personas and scenarios in place, you can then start breaking down scenarios into progressively smaller, agile user stories. Atlassian explains that a user story is the smallest unit of work in an agile framework. It's an end goal, not a feature, expressed from the software user's perspective. User stories are a few sentences in simple language that outline the desired outcome. They don't go into detail. Requirements are added later, once agreed upon by the team.

The Agile Alliance explains that a good user story should be::

  • "I" ndependent (of all others)
  • "N" egotiable (not a specific contract for features)
  • "V" aluable (or vertical)
  • "E" stimable (to a good approximation)
  • "S" mall (so as to fit within an iteration)
  • "T" estable (in principle, even if there isn't a test for it yet)

Design Thinking focuses on empathy and its human-centered drive and helps businesses view all software development through the customer's lens. By framing challenges from the user's perspective, startups can align their tech with the most critical user. Effective Design Thinking efforts begin with collecting and analyzing data, and outlining what your customer looks like (Personas,) explaining complex interactions with your product (Scenarios,) and outlining user goals for the features of your product (User Stories.) And while all of this can seem a bit overwhelming for a small startup, following this process can make the ending to your development story a happy one.