Over the years I have been asked to explain the value of personas. After all, they are not cheap to create, especially when you do it right. When I say right, I mean supported at the very least by contextual research into the circumstances of the target audience followed by a thorough analysis of that context that results in great information design deliverables capturing the essence of the personas. This qualitative form of persona can also be enhanced by subsequent quantitative research, which may provide accurate insights into the relative size, value, and desires of personas, acting more as market segmentation and supporting business strategy. This balanced qualitative/quantitative approach
If you have ever struggled to explain why design thinking is important, why it is different than other forms of thinking, I can recommend you read “Designerly Ways of Thinking” by Nigel Cross. Since the 1970’s Professor Cross has investigated the evidence for design cognition as an essential aspect of human intelligence and whether design can stand as a third “coherent discipline of study” alongside the sciences and humanities. To avoid being subsumed by these, he suggests that Design needs to establish clear insights into the nature of design activity, behavior and cognition.
The Continuum service design team ended our year with a series of short Service Safaris where we set out in small teams, pith helmets in hand, to immerse ourselves as customers in a range of what we perceived to be interesting service businesses. Apart from treating ourselves at the end of the year, the Safaris were intended to inspire by exposing us in a personal way to the qualities of great services.
Our teams investigated a diverse range of services including an innovative new barbershop concept, a tarot reading, a restaurant reservation service, a digitally enhanced private taxi service, and a sneaker customization service. I was part of a four-person team that indulged in the latest of barbershop care. It was a tough assignment but the four of us were up to the challenge of straight-razor shaves, massaging shampoos, layered and buzz cuts, hot face towels, and shoulder massages.
Whether or not you agree with Bruce Nussbaum, one of the leading media voices to support the approach to design inherent in design thinking, and his recent highly publicized declarations that design thinking has been a failed experiment; it may be useful in that it may provoke a broadening of the discussion around what it takes to create great design.
One aspect of the design of business upon which I would love to see such discussion is the role of design in the creation of competitive advantage. I have always believed that design thinking is most powerful when paired successfully with the elements of business thinking and that this happy marriage can provide great momentum to the process of producing market innovations. Market innovations that provide competitive advantage often exhibit one of its key characteristics…they differentiate the business from competitors in the market place. I believe it is the responsibility of business designers to understand how to achieve this and to continually innovate the tools and methods of design to achieve this. It is core component of the strategy formation process and an important area in which the role of designers and design managers can move upstream.
In the design innovation process insights drive ideas and the deeper the understanding generated by your insights the more plentiful, inspiring and diverse your ideas are likely to be. Design research that engages with customers and users is the principal way that designers gain the insights that reveal unmet needs. Customer personas are an important by-product of such research and provide a lens through which empathic designers can imagine and validate ideas and concepts aimed at satisfying their goals and needs. However, I would like to suggest a desk research tool that builds on the primary research and resultant personas and can help focus in on potential unmet needs and which are not provided by competitors. The goal of this tool is to identify competitive white space that a business might occupy and which can result in differentiated products and services. The tool is called the competitor customer experience audit.
One of the most useful of tools of human-centered design are personas. They are a wonderful form of synthesis upon completion of primary user research. They become a lens through which design and business teams can define users; understand their goals, needs, behaviors, and motivations; and remain objective when determining the features that may satisfy those needs.
However, I would almost guarantee that from one design agency to the next you would be hard-pressed to find a consistent definition of personas, why they are useful, how to create them, who should create them, and how to use personas during the design and marketing of new products, services, communications, and well…just about anything that can be designed for people! And because agencies present personas in different ways to the marketplace, businesses are also often unclear on what qualifies a persona to be a truly reliable and quality persona. Arriving at reliability and quality is a question of degree. The degree of insight and information the design team has at their disposal, the means in which it was obtained, and the skill at surfacing the important dimensions of the persona are critical to building confidence that teams can indeed make important design and business decisions that they can stand by.
The questions of degree in the creation process look something like this…
Research is often a fundamental activity in tackling design challenges. Research is often a fundamental activity in tackling business challenges. Two statements that sound like you might be talking about the same thing, but depending on whom you are talking to, you are likely to find yourself on the frontlines not of a battle, but rather two separate battles! The combatants are what these days are being called the “design thinkers” and the “business thinkers”. However they are not battling each other. They are instead battling the traditional demons that keep them isolated from each other’s approaches to solving the challenges of designing innovative business today. To demonstrate the reality of this difference I present you this dazzling panoply of opposites in the visual above!
But the story doesn’t end there!