Startup Sally. Venture Vic. Paul Pasta. Midlife Mary. These customers are vitally important to my small business. And none of them are real. They’re a few of the “personas” we’ve devised to help us in our product development process. Some of the most important “customers” for your small business may not be real people at all, but a model of the target customers you need to reach.
The “persona” process—or developing prototypes of your customers—was created by software developer Alan Cooper in the 1980s. At the time, most software was far too clunky for ordinary people to use. Cooper realized that software developers were part of the problem—they were gung ho about their technology but didn’t really focus on the actual customers who’d be using it.
So Cooper did something revolutionary for that time: he began meeting and talking with customers, at their workplace. He watched how they worked, what their day was like, how they interacted with computers and software. Instead of just compiling this info into a set of dull market research numbers, Cooper created an archetype—or persona—representing the specific target customer. Then, he and his engineers designed their software for that persona.
The sad fact is that the world hasn’t changed much since then—not when it comes to creating products or services that customers love. And it’s not just in technology companies, either.
Small business owners, too, fall into that trap. We create a product or service we personally would love to have and figure everyone feels the same: they don’t. And small businesses have very limited resources—of both time and money. We’re lucky if we can get our products out the door in time to make the deadline for a big order or trade show.
Spending just a bit of time to get to know your customers better and then creating “personas” to represent those customers can vastly improve your chance of success. Putting a name—and even a face—with the “persona,” can give you a real-life feel for the customers you hope to serve.
Here’s how the “persona” process works in my business—a content creation company specializing in entrepreneurship and business planning:
When we’re first thinking of creating a new product, the editorial team meets and spends about a half day discussing what our specific “personas” want. Each persona has a name, personal description (age, gender, personality, buying habits), business description (industry, business stage, revenues) and specific business need. “Vic Venture” needs to raise a lot of money from experienced investors for his new tech enterprise; “Sally Startup” doesn’t need to raise money, but she’s eager for information and guidance.
How can you use Cooper’s “persona” process to help your small business product or service development process?
- Get out of your office and meet with customers or potential customers. You don’t need dozens, just a cross-section of the types of customers likely to use your product.
- Go to them: Ideally, see customers in the setting where they’ll be using your product or service. It’s preferable not to just conduct interviews over the phone or in a conference room.
- Ask open-ended questions: Ask questions about how your customers currently do whatever your product or service will address. Avoid leading questions, such as “Wouldn’t you find it easier if you had a …”
- Observe: Watch how your customers interact with your product (if it’s already developed) or with whatever products they currently use. What do they do first? What seems clumsy? What else is going around them?
- Identify the characteristics common to major types of customers. Then, create a few fictional individuals—give them names, ages, personalities, descriptions—to represent customers with those characteristics. These are your “personas.”
- Then, when designing your product or service, go through a process of evaluating how each of your “personas” would buy, use, or interact with it. Make a list of their needs and issues. Design your product or service with those needs foremost.
- Ideally, go out to the real world and test your product or service with individuals who represent your personas.
Having a few of these “fake” customers—personas—can help you land a lot more real ones in the future.
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2015
This article originally ran in USA Today on March 20, 2015