Replacing Personas With Characters

Resolving the destructive effects of Personas.

Read the Persona* (please see notes below) below and then learn what your brain does.

Alan is a 30 year old white male living in New York. 6 months ago, he got married in Miami Florida. It was a big event where lots of friends and family attended.

He graduated from University with an MFA degree, but was also always into engineering and has begun writing software programs when he was very young.

He’s really into fashion, his mother was a fashion stylist, and doesn’t mind spending money on designer clothes. He doesn’t buy clothes too often because he chooses to only buy pieces he really likes and thinks is a good color & fit for him.

Some of his hobbies include tennis, playing flamenco guitar and reading.

Alan is someone who needed a tux for wedding and just bought one at a Sandro store.

The tux Alan bought..sort of

The tux Alan bought..sort of

The above story of someone buying a product (a new tux) is in the format of a persona. Now… for everyone who read this persona, 1 of 3 things happened. Their brain either:

  1. Instantly assembled the bits into a story explaining why Alan bought this particular tux -adding in whatever parts it felt were missing.
  2. Made an attempt to create a story, but just gave up: probably because it’s tired or just don’t care enough to figure it out.
  3. Consciously decided to make an effort to understand the story, slowed down, and downshifted into a more critical mode of thinking; however, since the information is too sparse to make sense— it goes back to #1 or #2.

Your brain did one of the above scenarios because it took in these somewhat disconnected facts and then was left with a result: Alan bought the tux. However… it was unsatisfied- it was left thinking:

‘How did these attributes lead to this particular purchase?’

Because personas focus on creating a story made up of a customer’s attributes, instead of a story that explains a purchase, personas leave the brain in a unsatisfied state. To fix this, in just a split second, the brain decides to make up it’s own story about why Alan bought a particular Tux.

“As each team member reads a persona, they will subconsciously fill it with their own assumptions”

The reason why the brain work like this, has to do with cognitive biases; specifically, a phenomenon Daniel Kahneman calls What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI).

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The above story is an abbreviated Persona… and the gap filling WYSIATI effect it has is not what the inventors of Personas intended. Because of this, Personas have destructive effects on an organization. As each team member reads a persona, they will subconsciously fill it with their own assumptions which differ from everyone else.

The way to mitigate these unintended effects is to replace Personas with models that enable cohesive stories. These models are called Characters.

Personas, Missing Gaps & The Team

Watch out! You’re about to read a persona! Don’t try to figure anything out…everything you need to know is in there…trust me…

Watch out! You’re about to read a persona! Don’t try to figure anything out…everything you need to know is in there…trust me…

Over the years, many people have recognized that Personas can cause more problems than they solve. To fix this, designers began making Personas bigger and more rich. Some Personas can be 1-2 typed pages which meticulously describe attributes of these imaginary customers.

Yet, no amount of colorful attributes can fill the gaps our brains will automatically fill when reading Personas. These missing gaps are the causalities which drove the customer to consume a particular product.

“When reading a Persona, the brain craves a story that ties everything together.”

When reading a Persona, the brain craves a story that ties everything together. If the story lacks causality, it will struggle to create that story, and will eventually just make up it’s own causalities— the WYSIATI effect.

The brain works to tie what it takes in so it can create a story — but usually just makes things up ‘cause it’s lazy…

The brain works to tie what it takes in so it can create a story — but usually just makes things up ‘cause it’s lazy…

The brain acts this way because it’s hungry for causal stories which neatly explain why things happen. If it feels there are any missing gaps, it will subconsciously fill those gaps with it’s own assumptions. Our brains have evolved this way to keep us safe; if something that looks like a predator suddenly jumps out at us, our brain would rather quickly assume we are in danger rather then slowly evaluate the situation.

The problem with this behavior for organizations and teams is: as each member of a team starts subconsciously creating their own reason why customers are ( or not ) consuming a product, the team will fragment. Even worse, they will be fragmented and not even know it.

There is hope. There is one important thing that Personas do which make them helpful: They enable a way for a team to quickly reference what has been learned about customers. However, everything else about Personas needs to go.

The answer is to take the good, a way for a team to quickly reference insights about a customer, and to add what’s needed: causality**.

To get the brain to accept a story which explains why a consumer bought a product, it needs information presented in a particular way. The best way to deliver this information is to explain a customer’s anxieties, motivations, purchase-progress events, and purchase-progress situations.

When combined, they form what I call Characters.

The Customer Becomes A Character

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Let’s consider the above scenario when Alan ( I ) bought a new tuxedo. Everything in that story was true (I did just buy a tux); however, your brain knew something was off. It recognized that it didn’t make sense for these attributes to suddenly compel me to buy that tux… and it also picked up some information in there that just seemed like noise— such as the part about Flamenco guitar playing.

“What would make sense for the brain is a believable story”

What would make sense for the brain is a believable story which explains that purchase. This is what we can use Characters for.

A Character is someone who:

  1. Has anxieties & motivations.
  2. Experiences purchase-progress events.
  3. Encounters purchase-progress situations.

Let’s use my story of a tuxedo purchase to create a Character, beginning with anxieties & motivations.

Anxieties & Motivations

Here are some of my anxieties and motivations regarding a tuxedo purchase:

I had been considering buying a tuxedo for years. Some reasons I hadn’t bought one in the past are:

I don’t wear black and most tuxedos for sale are black.

I had only been to a few formal events over the years.

I didn’t want to waste money.

Even though I hated the look and fit of rented tuxedos, I just would feel guilty about buying something I didn’t need.

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If you’re familiar with the Jobs To Be Done concept, you’ll recognize those as some forces which pull and push consumers.

“Customers’ anxieties & motivations are discovered through interviewing them.”

Customers’ anxieties & motivations are discovered through interviewing them. How to uncover them is beyond the scope of this article. A good place to start would be to learn about the progress making forces diagram, this udemy course as well as some techniques explained by David Wu.

With some anxieties and motivations defined, let’s move to Purchase-Progress Events.

Purchase-Progress Events

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While your Characters are going about their life with their motivations and anxieties, they are going to experience particular events which will pull them toward a purchase. These are Purchase-Progress Events.

Here are the Purchase-Progress Events I experienced:

Lately, male celebrities and actors in movies have been wearing more alternative tuxedos— most notably created by Tom Ford. This has had a ripple effect within the fashion industry and mainstream culture. Now, alternative styles and colors for tuxedos are more socially acceptable.

Leading up to the purchase, I saw advertisements for the latest James Bond movie. In this movie James Bond, famous for being dapper and wearing tuxes, wears a non traditional midnight blue tux. He also looks more like me (blond hair & blue eyes) than previous James Bonds (who all had dark hair and dark eyes).

I recently read an article in GQ magazine on how to buy a tux. The article also showed contemporary models and actors wearing tuxedos in more casual ways— usually a tux jacket with jeans and a button up shirt.

So far, I’ve been experiencing Purchase-Progress Events through the lens of my anxieties and motivations. On their own, these aren’t enough to lead to a purchase. What will tip the scales will be the Purchase-Progress Situation(s) I encounter.

Purchase-Progress Situations

Purchase-Progress Events are passive. They are things which the customer sees, hears, or has happen to them. At some point, all customers who end up making a purchase did so because they experienced one or more Purchase-Progress Situations.

“Characters persist throughout your product’s lifecycle. They are places which solutions fit into.”

Here are the ones I encountered:

I had just got married and I met a lot of people. I learned that some of these people had their own weddings coming up and they were inviting me. This meant I would need to wear a tux at least 2 times over the coming year.

While walking down the street, I walked by a Sandro store and saw a midnight blue tuxedo on sale for a limited time. After a quick calculation, I realized that buying the discounted tux would cost about the same as renting a tux twice.

In both cases, I had to make a decision:

  1. I have to use a tux in the future, will I buy or rent it?
  2. The sale is for a limited time, will I buy now or choose to ignore the discount?

Characters For Your Product

As you begin interviewing more and more customers, you’ll begin to hear them:

  1. Describing the same anxieties & motivations.
  2. Describing similar purchase progress events.
  3. Encountering similar purchase progress situations.

“Characters evolve from a series of interviews”

As an example, lets assume that Sandro interviewed customers and found that many of them expressed the same motivations, anxiety and situations I did. We’ll use this as a basis for a Character.

Download a Character template here.

Because Characters evolve from a series of interviews, as more interviews occur, you’ll begin to notice customers expressing similar anxieties, motivations, events and situations; you’ll also start noticing clumps of them happening together.

Characters For Sales, Promotion & Product Design

Everyone involved with a product will benefit from Characters. Sales can use them to ease a customer’s anxieties. Promotion & Marketing can use them to create copy and when to deploy advertising.

“Everyone involved with a product will benefit from Characters.”

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Product designers can use Characters to improve their product by reducing anxieties, building upon motivations and navigating them through situations.

Anything Missing From Characters?

Now, even Characters are not immune to the effects of WYSIATI…but that’s ok. The parts which the brain are going to fill are the non-critical parts about the story. Interestingly, these non-critical parts are those which Personas traditionally focus on; e.g. what the customer looks like, what they do in their spare time, likes and dislikes…..

There is another part which is missing from the Character: the product they purchased. This is done by design because solutions are opinions whereas Characters are facts. Writing ‘The Reluctant Tux Customer needs a tux that looks like A, B, C…’, will turn the Character into a one time product requirement.

Characters persist throughout your product’s lifecycle. They are places which solutions fit into. Sometimes the fit works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Lastly, the Character model described in this article is one that is considering a purchase, a buyer Character. This is different than a Character who is using product. The most notable different is that instead of Purchase-Progress Events & Situations they are defined by situations & expected outcomes.

The Stars Of Your Product

The term Character was explicitly chosen to describe this model:

Your customers are actors who play different Characters.

Your product is the story which these Characters take part in.

Sometimes your customer will only play one Character, sometimes they can be multiple Characters. Maybe the tux customer is considering buying a tux:

  1. For themselves.
  2. For a son, brother, father or friend.
  3. For a group of people.
  4. All of the above.

Another way customers assume different Character roles is when they move from someone considering a purchase (a buyer Character) to someone who is using a product ( e.g. a SaaS ) in an ongoing way (a user Character).

“Sometimes your customer will only play one Character, sometimes they can be multiple”

Use Characters Today

Change is hard for everyone. People who are used to Personas may resist if they feel a new process is being thrust upon them. To avoid this, begin talking about your customers using the language of Characters. You don’t need to say the word ‘Character’, but you can start asking everyone to think about:

What anxieties & motivations do you think our customers have / had when purchasing our, or a similar, product?

Do you suppose there were any events that happened which reminded our customer about the problem our product solves?

What situations might our customer encounter which would put them in a position where they had to decide to buy our product or not?

If you’re using Personas, you can sneak Characters in by amending the information to your Persona documents. Maybe start at the back of the Persona doc….then work the info to the beginning…then maybe drop all the Persona attribute parts… then one day ask:

Ya know, I think these Personas we’re using are not the typical Personas…let’s call them something else…how about….Characters….?

A Better Way To Work

Person in spotlight speaking to crowd

Speak directly to customers.

Our goal in product design, marketing and promotion is to be able to relate to our customers in a way which speaks directly to them: as if they are in a dark room and our product shines a spotlight on them.

“We should always reconsider how we think about products and customers.”

We should always reconsider how we think about products and customers. Currently, not enough of the product process is devoted to understanding situations and causalities which drive product consumption.

Right now is such an exciting time to create products; so much has changed over the last 15 years. It’s time we look at what hasn’t changed and see if it can be improved as well.

Replacing Personas with Characters is one of those improvements we can make.

[Notes]
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*Proponents of Cooper style Personas have correctly pointed out that the abbreviated Persona in this example is far from what a ‘correct’ Persona should be like; thus making the entire article invalid. The goal of the article is to explain the destructive effects of adding non-pertinent, subjective qualities when creating models of customer consumption. Because of side effects like WYSIATI, adding subjective and fictional details ( as Cooper Personas suggest ) to a customer model will unwittingly distract and fragment a team as each team member subconsciously brings in their own prejudices & confirmation biases into the design process.

**The problem highlighted here isn’t that Personas do or don’t include causality; rather, the problem is that Personas & Goal Directed Design lack a process to correctly model causalities. Instead, as suggested in ‘About Face 3′, designers should “[imagine] and [develop] scenarios from the perspective of personas”— an encouragement to add fictional, interpretive attributes & causality to customer models. When reading this fictional input, the brain will subconsciously begin creating causal relationships between those attributes and why consumption occurred. E.g. If a Persona created around an iPhone describes the customer as 35 years old and having a cat name Claude, our brain will subconsciously begin making up reasons why & how being 35 years old and having a cat contribute to the iPhone purchase…WYSIATI strikes again. Our goal is to understand how real customers make real decisions and real tradeoffs; adding fictional information to this process is disinformation.

This post was originally published on Alan’s Medium profile.

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I help businesses and people become great at making products people will buy. Evolved Jobs to be Done (#JTBD) theory & practice it. Author. 2x founder. Investor. Follow me on Twitter. Find out more at alanklement.com.

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