Making Your Way from User Personas to Real, Live Customers

As a busy product maker and marketer, the idea of creating personas might strike you as relatively frivolous, and to be frank, we agree. But they do have their place. Sometimes.

If you’re a digital product maker and marketer, finding your audience is important, which is why we wrote about it in our last post. But if you haven’t yet sold your product, how do you know who your people are?

Steve Jobs had this problem once. When Jobs originally envisioned the iPod, there wasn’t a product on the market to compare it to. Sure, there were MP3 players, but they all sucked. You had to convert every song to a particular audio format in order to use them, the battery life was horrible, and the thing could only hold a handful of songs in the first place. At the time, the geeks making and marketing agency MP3 players were entirely focused on the specs — storage space, etc. — and not at all on the actual user experience (which, again, sucked).

The iPod, on the other hand, could simply be plugged into your computer, and your entire music library would magically transfer onto the device. It was sleek and beautiful. It worked well, with little futzing. And it held tons of songs that were magically in the right format from the start. From a status quo spec-sheet standpoint, most people would have said the iPod was a “fail.” Yet if you compared the customer experience to existing MP3 players at the time, there was no question who the winner was.

And to the shock of the over-engineers of the world, the iPod was a staggering success right out of the gate. From a 2006 Macworld article:

The elegance and simplicity of the device was stunning. It was so easy to get to a singer, a song, an album, a playlist. The way that the volume control worked was brilliant, as was the way you turned it on and off. Nothing got in the way of the music, because it was all about the music.

Jobs was a genius when it came to predicting what customers wanted and needed — and then getting them to buy it. He famously disavowed formal user research, memorably saying “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

A lot of entrepreneurs hold up Jobs as a model of someone who went rogue and threw market research under the bus. And yes, Jobs was gifted at intuitively understanding what people wanted. But remember, at the time the iPod was invented, he was already sitting at the helm of a company with a huge pool of fanatical existing customers. Apple could tune into those customers to decipher their needs, wants, and desires — even when creating a brand-new device like the iPod. Jobs didn’t pay a lot of attention to formal user research because he didn’t need to.

Jobs was also famous for another quote about user experience: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology.” He knew that ultimately, his general customer persona was the everyday Joe who loved music and could appreciate a device that simplified the usability options. By appealing to this demographic, and providing a universally appealing A+ experience, Jobs had a foundation. The iPod offered convenience, time savings, an elevated enjoyment of music on the go, and the customer support to back it all up. With all of this in mind, Apple built a product for that persona and marketing agency to support it.

In the Beginning, It’s About Personas

If user-centric design is your goal, personas are the first step to getting there. A persona is a fictional amalgam of character traits and demographic qualities that you think might exist in a specific type of customer.

For instance:

Kermit the Hipster

24-year-old male

Graduated from NYU with a degree in ceramics

Lives in Brooklyn and takes the subway to his job as a barista at an independent cafe and record store

Loves his matcha lattes and CBD sodas

Style is “logger chic”

Listens to Frank Sinatra and Childish Gambino

Spends his free time writing his memoirs at the public library

Sarah the Influencer

21-year old female

Second year at University of Southern California seeking a degree in communications

Describes her style as “Coachella in the ’70s”

Loves anything retro or with fringe

Spends her free time obsessing over her Instagram follower count

Can’t function without her morning coffee (likes it black)

Frequently changes her music playlists

Marketers typically use more than one persona per product. For instance, a new music-listening device might cater to that millennial hipster dude and the Instagram influencer, but also to:

  • Younger kids born into a device-savvy world, who innately understand how to use a touch screen but align their musical taste with their Snapchat feeds
  • Gen-Xers entering middle age and moving to the suburbs, but not quite ready to leave their youth behind
  • Baby boomers who don’t love technology, but do love music and want easier ways to listen to their old favorites in their new Teslas and Priuses

You get the picture. Once you have a clear vision of your personas, you can build your marketing agency around it.

Personas are typically developed out of a combination of user research and educated intuition. Often, they’re described in a document that personalizes them by giving them names, illustrations, and gratuitous detail that, on the surface, has nothing to do with your product, but helps describe the person who might buy it. Personas might mention things like user goals, their job roles, their income, their level of education, what kind of things they like to buy and use, how they feel when they shop for products like yours. For instance, with the persona above, now that we have a colorful and detailed picture of Kermit in our minds, we can start to evolve what kind of music listening-device is going to appeal to him.

Personas can be wonderfully helpful for designing a product and building marketing agency around it. They lend themselves particularly well to the common pitfall of thinking you’re targeting one group while you’re actually speaking to another. Putting detail and color into your description of the accurate group helps you better market to it.

But personas are limited in their use for marketers. They provide a good launch point for initial marketing agency efforts, but once you have real customers, it’s critical you examine them directly.

When Personas Turn into People

Having personas at your disposal is only helpful in lieu of actual customers. Once you have real customers, you no longer have personas. Now, you have customer profiles. Instead of spending your time making up characters to inhabit the story of your product, it’s time to switch focus and start analyzing those real people. What kind of demographics can you gather about them? How old are they? What magazines do they read? What music do they listen to, and how do they prefer to listen to it? Or are they more into podcasts?

Understanding your true users and their behaviors, desires, purchasing habits, and needs will help you both in marketing agency your products and in creating better and better products. In the end, creating personas is a valuable exercise, but it’s still only an exercise, and it takes place in the beginning of the iterative process of designing and selling your products. The real value you’ll get is from your actual customers — real people with real wants and needs that can’t always be turned into a 2D cartoon.

Want to keep going? Read our book Got Ideas? How to Turn Your Ideas into Products People Want to Use, which takes novice product-makers through the journey of creating great, user-friendly digital products from the thin air of their imaginations. Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook, it’s a hands-on, practical manual for aspiring entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs.

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