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Personas in Marketing and Product Design

29 February

With guest blogger, Margaret Boothroyd.

160222.highres.personasWhat is a persona? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “the aspect of a person’s character that is presented to or perceived by others,” or “a role or character adopted by an author or actor.”

In the world of product design and marketing, the term persona is used in two fundamentally different ways. First, it refers to a composite version of the consumer of a product – the archetypal buyer or end user. We will call this first type “consumer personas.” Second, a persona refers to the voice or character of a human-like product or virtual agent, such as Alexa or Siri. We will call this second typ “product personas.” Let’s look at the implications of these two types of personas for marketing and design.

Consumer Personas

The term “persona” representing an archetypal user was first coined by Alan Cooper in The Inmates Are Running the Asylum (1999): “Personas are not real people, but they represent them throughout the design process. They are hypothetical archetypes of actual users. Although they are imaginary, they are defined with significant rigor and precision.”

A similar concept was independently developed in the 1990s by Angus Jenkinson. In his article, “Beyond Segmentation,” he contrasted segments vs. groups to illustrate the value in marketing to groups of people with shared values over targeting segments with shared demographic characteristics. Eventually the term “persona” came to be used in the marketing domain as well as among product designers to represent these archetypes.

Buyer personas — typically used in marketing

Marketers use buyer personas to speak to the archetypal customers. They are useful for crafting messaging and validating the product’s value proposition. There are many online resources and tools to help develop buyer personas. The important things to keep in mind are:

  • Consider starting with market segmentation research to establish key demographic characteristics of target buyers.
  • Interview stakeholders and sales people to learn more about target buyers from their perspective.
  • Do thorough research (e.g. ethnographic research, focus groups, online communities aka MROCs) with actual or potential customers to identify their needs, values and goals.
  • Create 4-8 personas.
  • Validate your buyer personas throughout the marketing phase by gathering qualitative feedback from target customers. Show them iterations of marketing prototypes before they are finalized.
  • Be careful not to project your own values onto your buyer personas as Tom Fishburne so comically illustrates in his cartoon shown above.

SayWhat conducted focus groups with college students for an online textbook retailer in 2012 to develop buyer personas to help their marketing team build its strategy. Check out our Buyer Personas Case Study to learn more.

User personas — typically used in design

User personas help keep the product design process on track by understanding how people will actually use the product. For example, suppose you’re developing a new organic quinoa-kale snack product. You will need to know when and where people will typically eat the snack. If you are marketing to a 24-year old yoga instructor, are you assuming she will eat the snack during a break between classes in a quiet space? Or will she typically be eating it on the run, possibly while biking or driving (in which case she needs to be able to open it with one hand, and it would be helpful to have bite-sized pieces that stick together rather than a deli salad type snack that requires a utensil).

Similar to the development of buyer personas, thorough research is necessary in order to identify and define user personas. Cooper recommends focusing on the primary user and satisfying the secondary user. Make sure the design and product teams keep coming back to your user personas in order to avoid feature creep.

Product Personas

cncartoons030425-549In contrast to buyer personas, a product persona is an abstraction representing a character embodied by the product. Common examples today are virtual assistants, such as Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google Now. The term has actually been used since the 1990s in the voice user interface design community to refer to the voice of IVR systems (see Voice User Interface Design by Cohen, Giangola, and Balogh, 2004).

Clifford Nass was a forerunner in research on how humans interact with machines. In the book The Media Equation (1996), Nass and Reeves posit that it is natural to attribute a personality to a machine or interface with human-like characteristics. For example, people attribute personality traits to synthesized speech.

How would you describe Siri’s personality, for example? Personally, I am not in love with Siri’s persona – I find her lack of affect annoying, and at times I find her downright aloof. I recently heard some examples of the iOS 9 version of Siri and discovered a kinder, sweeter, more natural-sounding persona.

So how much does a product’s persona impact users? That’s a big question. Most virtual assistants use a female voice because research has shown it to be the general preference. But that’s not always the case. Notably,  BMW had to recall its German GPS system after it was found that German men did not react well to taking directions from a female voice. Perhaps if they had done good consumer research to identify buyer personas before the launch, BMW could have avoided the recall.

We can help you identify your consumer personas, and/or guide you in crafting compelling product personas. Contact SayWhat Consumer Research to initiate a conversation.

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