When you’re building a startup, one of the first concepts you’ll be introduced to is ‘persona development’. Persona development is a set of tools that enable you to ask, ‘whose problem are you solving?’
It’s often effective to image that problem as plaguing a particular individual, rather than as being a challenged faced by a demographic. When you put a problem in the context of a person, it’s easier to empathize with that individual, figure out how he or she understands the problem, and even where he or she can be found once you’ve developed a solution. The person you imagine as being the recipient of your solution is your ‘persona’, and the process of building a story for them is ‘persona development’.
Persona development is relevant as you begin product development and customer discovery. When you attempt to map out your first adopters, you’re essentially doing an exercise in persona development, to find which people are most impacted by the problem you’ve identified. But persona development doesn’t end after you’ve found a first adopter. When marketing your app or product to a wider audience, don’t think of it as reaching as many random people as possible. Instead try to reach different personas – different demographic clusters that will benefit from your solution.
This article will provide an actionable introduction to persona development, with the aim of helping you use it to grow your startup. First, it will explain how to reach your startup, before looking at what information you need for a persona, and why that information is useful.
Find Your Customer and Connect
A recent problem in the startup scene has been the overwhelming trend of entrepreneurs primarily solving problems for themselves. Because we tend to be privileged 20-somethings, the majority of apps and products have been targeting us as a demographic – but there are other, larger markets out there, in need of our services. Anthropological research and customer persona development can help entrepreneurs sharpen their empathy and build products for markets outside their own peer group.
If you want to reach a customer in a different demographic, it’s important to do three things: establish links and a relationship with that group, collect detailed information about them, and empathize with their experience (making corrections when you’ve made a mistaken assumption). Persona development is linked to the idea of building a character in a novel – by understanding the details of an imaginary person, it becomes easier to empathize with their decision-making and understand their motivations.
Let’s assume you’re building an app for freelance plumbers looking for quick work. The first thing you’d want to do is talk to a few plumbers. Find a way to chat with them without disrupting their day, and try to build a long term relationship so that you can get to know them in detail. When you meet them, do an informal customer development interview to understand their needs and challenges – your main question should be whether you’re actually solving a problem for them.
During baseline interviews, let the interviewee guide the conversation, so that they can establish which conversation topics are important. Don’t tell your plumber exactly what your product does at first, ask them open ended questions about their job hunting process, to see if your assumptions match up. If you’ve done multiple interviews at this point, you can also confirm different opinions that have arisen from these discussions. In this case you might begin with a few open ended questions, but then share information from other interviews with your subject – for him or her, it may even be useful to know how other plumbers job hunt. Try to make your interviews as useful as possible for the person you’re speaking with, so that they’re motivated to help you and talk to you again. Also, be sure to take notes during interviews, so that you’re not bothering your contacts by repeatedly asking the same questions.
If you’re able to successfully connect with a potential customer, then that will allow you to tap into their network. That’s how you start building connections in a new industry. If not, you can take the information from those interviews, and use them to cold contact new people in the industry – the more information you have, the more valuable a discussion with you will be, and the more likely an insider will be to consider chatting with you. If you are developing a profile to market an existing product to a new demographic, discussions should also come more easily because you’ll have an established track record.
What Information is Necessary?
Once you’ve managed to reach out to potential users and consumers, it’s necessary to start collecting data from those conversations so that you can adjust your product and marketing strategy as needed. More detail will help you craft a richer and more insightful persona, so don’t shy away from extra detail at first. Your persona won’t be a perfect representation of reality, but it’ll help you make guesses at how many people will think and behave. Your first persona will probably go through multiple revisions before you settle on it.
Build a persona around the area of a person’s life you hope to influence. For example, if you want to build an app for plumbers, you’ll want to understand a plumber’s career – your person will have demographic information focusing on for how long they’ve worked as a plumber, how they feel about their career, and how they make work decisions. If you’re building an app for entertainment, you’ll want to know who a person is in their social life, and how they make decisions there.
On a high level, your persona should start with the demographic information that will likely factor into a person’s decision whether or not to purchase your product. Then you should begin thinking about their attitudes and beliefs. To return to the plumber app, you’d probably ask yourself what kind of plumbers are particularly entrepreneurial, and would care for this product. Then, start thinking about their decision making power and structure, as well as their purchasing power. What do they need from you to make a decision? Finally, it’s important to think about broad concerns a user might have before agreeing to buy or try your product. Imagine the perceived risks or potential objections to using your product. What might those look like? Here’s a great worksheet to guide your thinking on persona development. You can also build and tailor a checklist of your own, specifically suited to the needs of your company or product.
Once you have a general idea of who your customer is and what they look like, it’s important to imagine what it’s like to be them: to empathize with them. One of the most important entrepreneurial skills is empathy. Honing your empathy takes practice and imagination. Persona development makes it a lot easier to empathize with your customer, because it enables you to do some of the imaginative work that gives them a real shape. More than that, it helps you communicate ideas on who your customer is, and how and why they do what they do to a product team, or use it to set goals within your startup. It’s harder to imagine a demographic making a decision about than to examine how an individual might approach a challenge, or decide whether they need a product.
Personas are a useful tool for communication, strategy development, and growth. Growth is a focused goal- advertising, white papers, and promotions all need to be directed to someone, and it’s not enough to specify a demographic. A persona lets you figure out details like to whom your advertising is directed, what content is absolutely necessary, and what language it should use. Once you know how your customer thinks and behaves, you can frame your product so that it’s not only clear, but also makes sense to them. Stay tuned for our persona development checklist, coming soon.