The problem with user personas
Written by Nils Davis, product management consultant and author, for our ebook, The Path to Product Excellence: Stories and Advice From the Field.
Your goal is not to create a product — it’s to create customers, lots of them.
Products are successful for one basic reason: they fulfill a need or solve a problem better than the alternatives, a problem which people will pay to solve, no exceptions. If your product does that — solves a problem better than any of its alternatives, and people are willing to pay for a solution to that problem, you’re probably going to be fine.
Because of our name—product manager—we naturally focus on our products. But the fact is that none of the people we want to sell to care about products. What they care about is whether or not someone can solve their problems.
But the fact is that none of the people we want to sell to care about products. What they care about is whether or not someone can solve their problems.
Problems and personas
The common theme in my work on product management is the problem the prospect is suffering from—or the unrealized opportunity, or unmet desire, or whatever it is.
The original idea behind the “persona” was to help people get away from living in a solution space by ensuring we considered the customer’s problem. But, the cart was put before the horse, and the cause and effect relationship was lost. We lost focus on the problem. Your prospect is not a person with characteristics. Your prospect is a person with a problem. The characteristics of that person do not matter, except insofar as they drive a particular type of problem. For example, here are two people:
- Soccer mom Pat has three kids and a minivan, she drives the kids to practice after work, and often has to take afternoons off to do Mom stuff. She lives in the suburbs.
- Young gay man Stephen has a Mini and spends a lot of time at work. He takes trips to the wine country with his husband on the weekends. He has no kids so far and lives in the city.
They couldn’t sound more different in terms of demographics, right?
But they are both project managers in mid-size companies. They both have dozens of projects they are involved in, and their respective project management office teams have hundreds of projects.
Your prospect is not a person with characteristics. Your prospect is a person with a problem. The characteristics of that person do not matter, except insofar as they drive a particular type of problem.
At work, Pat and Stephen are basically the same people, facing the same problems. Having a persona for each of them is not terribly meaningful, except on the margins. Stephen might have a particular problem with being made to feel stupid, while Pat’s biggest annoyance is feeling like she’s wasting time or doing the same thing over and over again.
They have the same problems—resource management is a giant pain, reporting on the status of their projects is very frustrating, having to go through the same steps each time when starting a new project is tedious, and manually doing so many steps that should be automated is draining.
You see that the problem is the fundamental unit for Pat and Stephen, not their personas. The throughline from market discovery to product development to go-to-market is the problem we are solving for the market. If you focus and align everyone around that, you’ll end up with better results and better solutions.
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This post is an excerpt from our ebook, The Path to Product Excellence: Stories and Advice From the Field. Get your copy now for more valuable insights from product management thought leaders.
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