3 signs your communications project is off-track, and how to fix it with personas

Guido Stevens | Feb 23, 2015 | design research
Well-researched audience personas communicate deep insights

The meeting was a disaster. It was supposed to be a "rubber-stamp" type of event, just to discuss a few questions, after the proposal and the budget had been approved already. After the design had been approved half a year ago, already.

Unfortunately, some key questions could not be answered.

3 questions to check your communications vision

To validate any communications project, three basic questions are useful:

  • Who are we serving with this project?
  • What will be the difference for them, a year from now, if we succeed?
  • How will we interact with our audience and improve their lives?

Boom. The client has some ideas, just enough to invalidate the current design. But at the same time, those ideas are vague enough that it is not possible to articulate design directions, or make decisions.

The standard Dutch reflex to such situations is: we need to have some more meetings to discuss this (codespeak for: let's try and negotiate our differences away).

That reflex is wrong. You don't need to negotiate opinions. You need more data.

Personas synthesize research based insights

If you're building web sites, or any service that people interact with, you need a clear picture of who your intended audience is. You don't get that picture by sitting at your desk. You need to get out of the building and interview real, live humans to find out what makes them smile. To find out how exactly your service can add value to their lives.

Once you've done that research, you can then summarize and synthesize the findings into audience personas, profiles of fictional people that represent a typical customer. Persona's show describe key aspects of a person's life, goals and behaviors. Below are some example personas, based on Mailchimp user research:

example personas developed by Mailchimp

Those personas then drive your design. They enable you to empathize with your audience. They enable you to create a design that touches people in their hearts. And they enable you to overcome the sometimes weird ideas of people holding purses, who happen to like the color "red", by grounding design decisions in a solid, data-driven understanding of audience needs and preferences.

Buyer personas

Originating in the realm of web design and service design, the use of audience personas is now also gaining traction in the world of marketing, in the form of buyer personas.

Instead of making stuff up about your customers, you can ask them for the five key insights you need to focus your strategy:

  1. Priority initiatives

    What business need drives them to search for a solution in your market space?

  2. Success factors

    What do buyers expect to achieve by implementing your solution?

  3. Perceived barriers

    Which were the reasons to not buy your solution? Make sure to also interview non-customers!

  4. Buyer's journey

    Who is involved in the decision making process, what resources are trusted?

  5. Decision criteria

    Which factors are key in weighing alternative options and making a purchasing decision?

Gaining a deep understanding of these five points is key not only for buyer personas, but for design personas in general.

If you've articulated these five insights, you'll know the answers to the who, what and how questions. You'll know who you're serving, what value you're adding, and how this fits into the lives of your audience. The rest is execution.

The takeaway

  • Don't be fuzzy.

    If you don't know the who, what and how: acknowledge you don't know enough.

  • You don't need to guess.

    Persona creation is a proven methodology for crafting data-informed audience profiles.

  • Just do it.

    Doing the legwork to develop true insights is hard work. But it's actionable, not magic.

  • Use it or lose it.

    Services and businesses that invest in a solid evidence-based understanding of their audiences' needs, will out-shine those who design and market is based on hunches.

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