User Personas In The Product Design — Good And Bad

11User Personas Workshop

“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software” – An old tech joke, attributed to Edward Tufte

Every business deck mentions the value they provide to the customers. Is there a way to know whether that value resonates with the customers’ wants? Spoiler: Pay close attention to customer motivations and the context. Let’s explore.

As a PM, if you’re spending a good portion of your time talking to the customers, you are already ahead of the curve. Don’t get excited and pat your back. From my experience, that’s a low bar. Many PMs and teams imagine or assume the customer needs. Sometimes, genuinely, they won’t have access to the customer. Sure, but find the best available proxies. I cannot overemphasize the need to bring in the customer’s voice in whatever you’re orchestrating.

User Personas

You did a round of customer interviews. Now you have some feedback to work with, what do you do with it?

If you’re around the block for a bit, you may have heard about the user personas. Using Alan Cooper’s words from The Inmates are Running the Asylum, a persona captures the goals, struggles, background, and other characters of a type of user. Then design your product (or feature) around that persona.

It has become a norm to segment the customers into various groups based on customer characteristics. There are some downsides on which part of the feedback that you overweigh in your modeling. More on that later.

Some examples of personas: General Manager, Healthcare Provider, Record Store Manager, Sound Engineer, Media Curator.

Personas help define and design the product and, equally importantly, help your organization communicate about the customers and their goals. Persona building needs to be a team endeavor like a workshop — not a solo activity. Goal-based personas are FTW!

User Persona for a Book App via Dani Guerrato:

Wrong uses of User Personas (and how to fix them)

While personas, as defined, are well intended, there are issues in practice that you should be wary about.

Quickly jumping to solutioning

The fundamental goal of a product is to satisfy the unmet needs of the customers—no less. To get to the unmet needs, you can’t just ask the customers what they want and build it. For anything complicated, at the design phase, fall in love with the problem space. Please repeat after me: As a product manager, I love the problem space much more than the solution space. You’re interviewing the customer or prospect to understand the problem space, the unmet needs. They will jump into what they need as a solution but gently bring them back to the motivations and the current constraints to reach their goals.

Focusing on demographics alone

If you’re focusing primarily on demographics and segmenting the market, you’re missing the target. For product building, you need a clear understanding of the Jobs-to-be-Done for the job performer, the customer.

Trust me, not all 30-year old male, Asian, and who live in the Atlanta metro area in a software profession act the same way or seek the same solutions. Be very careful to distinguish between correlation and causation.

Leaning on Kim Goodwin’s spectacular work from Designing for the Digital Age. Goodwin covers Personas at length in this comprehensive volume. The image below talks about the distinction between a marketing focus (segments) vs. Product focus (personas). Both are useful, but ensure you’re using the right tool at the right phase of your initiative.

Optimal Research

Coming up with user personas is a lot of work, in a good sense. In my experience, it takes at least a dozen well-designed user interviews. If the product is in more of an emerging space, you may need even more interviews with a varied audience.

In the desire to get to the personas quickly, be cautious about the tendency to cut the research short. When you do that, you are not capturing the full picture of your customers’ skills, attitudes, and behaviors, leading to wrong conclusions.


User Personas is a useful tool in the toolbox. If you’re going to use it, invest time and energy in it. It takes a good week or two of interviews if you plan it well. The insights you get are precious. So, don’t short-change it.

Remember, it is only one tool in your toolbox. Please don’t make it your hammer, and look for nails. Combine this with the empathy aspect of Design Thinking and use the metrics (KPIs) on an ongoing basis to refine the approach.

Next week, let’s explore documenting and communicating the value statements. (Update: added the link)

Related – Further Reading

Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services | Wiley [Book]

The volume is comprehensive, covering all aspects of the product design. While it’s focused on the designers, the personas and goal-based approach are valuable to the product managers.

Ignore that designer behind the persona | by Chris Noessel

A short read. If you’re like me, dig into the theory of intentionality. The way you design a digital product used by a system (ala API) is different than a workflow solution used by a human.

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