Why Is it so Hard to Make Products that People Love?

Business people don't sit in their offices wondering how they can make a product uglier, and designers don't want to create products that won't sell. Everybody (usually) wants to do the right thing for the company, the products and the customers. So why do so many good designs get trampled during the product development process? If everyone is trying to create something good for their customers, why is the development process so rife with disagreements and compromises that actually hurt businesses in the long run? If everyone has the same good intentions, can't the business people just make up their minds about what kind of product they want to create and let design create the right solution?

Well, it's just not that easy, and it never will be. Remember the challenges the business stakeholders are facing: it's hard to figure out exactly who to build the product for, what business goals to satisfy and which branding messages to convey through the product. It's especially hard to do this early in the product design and development cycle, because business strategies tend to evolve over the development process—just like design strategies! Grumblings about ever-changing decisions and lack of clarity aside, everyone in the company is in the same boat. Everyone is working to create something, and creation takes time, collaboration and iteration.

Unfortunately, designers and business people don't speak the same language, and they don't always share the same background and values. They are different people who work in different ways and worry about different things. Sometimes their difficulty communicating results in products that aren't useful and don't make money. With the best intentions, business people make decisions that negatively impact design, and designers make decisions that negatively impact business.

In order to make successful products, designers and business people need to speak each other's language. They need a translator to help them understand each others' goals and decision-making process so that instead of inadvertently working against each other, they can make each others' jobs easier. In product and web development companies, project managers are responsible for translating between business people and technologists. Unfortunately, design teams don't often get this kind of help. Designers are expected to translate between technologists, program managers, product managers and business stakeholders on their own to create designs that will work for users and for the business. This doesn't always succeed, and even when it does, the process takes time and effort away from the design process.

Successful designs require translating:

  • Business needs into a language that designers understand
  • Design considerations into a language that business people understand
  • Knowledge about the users of our new products into a format that helps drive both business and design decisions

Enter personas

Personas are richly presented, highly detailed descriptions of individual users of a product. Personas can “stand in” for your users during the entire product design process. Personas can be created through user research, or in an “ad hoc” manner by collecting knowledge and assumptions about users from various stakeholders on the team. No matter how they are created, however, personas are excellent translators between design and business.

Personas provide the shared vocabulary that bridges the different points of view within the company.

Of course, thinking about actual customers and users is not a new idea. Many companies understand their user segments, which are typically described as a collection of demographic data. For example, one target segment for a medical supply company might be professionals working in nursing home facilities, between the ages of 25 and 40, the majority with college educations. Segmentation is also a kind of translation: creating segments allows marketers to translate data into marketing plans. In this example, segmentation would help our medical supply company decide to place ads with an effective subset of medical publications and associations. Segmentation does not, however, translate well between data and design, especially when it comes to designing the interactions between the user and the product. How would you design an interface to complete a particular task knowing only that your users are professionals working in the nursing homes, between the ages of 25 and 40, the majority with college educations? You can't.

Personas, on the other hand, do translate between data and design. Personas are more specific than segments and therefore much more actionable. If you know that Philip works as a physician's assistant in a suburban nursing home, has very little time between patients to enter in his notes (which are usually no longer than a single paragraph,) then you can make appropriate design decisions. You know you have to keep the note-entry experience process very short and simple.

Personas translate between business-ese and design-ese

If everyone in the company agrees that a set of personas embodies the key attributes of your product's intended users, it becomes easier to communicate about everything else. Personas provide the shared vocabulary that bridges the different points of view within the company. Well-defined personas can:

  • Create a rich, shared understanding of what you mean when you say “our customers” or “our users”
  • Create a shared vocabulary between multiple departments in your organization
  • Enable yourself and other stakeholders to make informed decisions about design alternatives
  • De-politicize the interactions between various teams in your organization
  • Encourage the entire organization to focus on your customers' goals
  • In one of my previous jobs, my team designed the interface for online presentation software. Initially, the business idea was to replace expensive sales conferences with online presentations. The prioritized target segment was “product managers who have to communicate with distributed sales forces.” I worked with my team to create “Susan,” a product manager for a large printer manufacturer who had to communicate with a dispersed sales team efficiently. The executive staff looked at Susan and said “no, this isn't right at all. Yes, she'll be interested ? but there's more money we can make if we go for people who have to give presentations more often. The sweet spot we're going for is the investor relations markets. Those folks have to make big presentations all the time.”

They changed their minds, we believed, as a result of seeing Susan “in person.” But unlike in previous projects, this change didn't set us back at all, because we created Susan before we began any design work on the project. We used Susan as a tool to mirror the information we heard back to the executive team–and it turns out they didn't like it when they saw it from this new angle. Instead of “changing horses mid-stream” (as they always seemed to during our product development process), the executive team clarified their goals in a language we could understand before we even started preliminary sketches.

Exit Susan, enter “Lewis,” who worked in the investor relations department of a large public company, and who was responsible for preparing, but not delivering, online presentations. We showed Lewis to the executive staff and they said “Yep, that's him.” Less than a week had elapsed, and we were off and running.

When we reviewed our designs with the business stakeholders, we were able to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each design based on what Lewis would expect, need, and want out of the product. Instead of getting into “he said/she said” arguments over elements of the designs, all of us were able to consider the business and aesthetic pros and cons of each option based on what Lewis would want and need, not on our personal perspectives.

Planning your persona effort

It's not difficult to understand how shared focus on a single clearly defined persona (or small set of personas) can help during the product design process. However, it can be difficult to convince a client or an executive that personas are worth the time and money it takes to create them. Any time designers do work that doesn't “look like” design, stakeholders tend to get nervous. Everyone wants to see mockups—but very few understand that there's a lot of preparation and “non-design” work required to create a great design.

No matter how you plan to create and use your personas, give yourself time to do some careful planning:

  • Craft a list of communication/translation problems you would like to solve–consider both business and design perspectives.
  • Create a plan for how you will incorporate customer research, market data and get stakeholder involvement in persona creation.
  • Think about how you will publicize the personas once they are created.
  • Decide how you will use the personas during your day-to-day design and review process. One of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to personas is to assume that the personas are “done” once they are created.
  • Figure out how you will measure the success of personas as translation tools. This can be as straightforward as deciding whether or not the personas solved the problems you identified in the first step.
  • In most cases, it makes sense to start small with assumption or “ad hoc” personas to see how they can improve communication and focus the team. You can validate these assumptions later in the process once these personas have shown some value. The exception to this rule is if your company is so research-driven that no one will be willing to talk about personas that aren't firmly grounded in hard data from the beginning.

What will change when you start using personas?

Let's imagine we work for the company that's creating an application for the medical professionals described above. A typical conversation between designers and business stakeholders might sound something like this:

Business: We're targeting hospitals and clinics. Right now there is no one selling into the niche we are going for. And once we get one hospital on board, word will spread like wildfire because it's such a cool product and there's huge word of mouth in the medical community. We need the logo to be on every page so people remember who made it.
Design: The logo on every page? But to fit it on we'll have to make it really small, and that will look terrible.
Business: Make it work. We have to get our name out there.
Design: #($#&*

With personas, the goal is to enable business and design to express their desires and ideas in a language that both sides can understand and that keeps the focus on the users:

Business: We're targeting hospitals and clinics. Right now there is no one selling into the niche we are going for. And once we get one hospital on board, word will spread like wildfire because it's such a cool product and there's huge word of mouth in the medical community. We need the logo to be on every page so people remember who made it.
Design: OK. But Philip is going to use this all day every day, and he has to cover four patients every hour, which means he has to get to each of their rooms, evaluate them, take solid notes, and get the notes to the doctors if there's urgency. He's in a hurry. He'll get annoyed if we put the logo on every page because it will take up valuable screen space.
Business: Hmm. I can see that. Well, we want Philip to tell all his colleagues that our product is great—we need to make ourselves into a “household name” for him.
Design: Philip has to do a report every day at the end of his shift. That report gets printed out, and everyone ends up seeing it—Philip, his boss, the docs. Let's brand the heck out of the reporting tools and the reports themselves.

When you hear names like “Philip” replace words like “user” and “customer,” you'll know the personas are starting to work.

Business people and designers are never going to speak the same language, and that's okay. Each needs their own language to get their work done. To make great products, we have to create new ways to understand each other and work together as we keep our collective focus on the users of our products. Personas not only help translate and keep communication channels open between designers and business people, they also help to create and maintain a focus on customers and their needs throughout the design process. The persona approach has helped a variety of companies (including retail giant Best Buy and veteran Medco) improve not just their products and services, but their bottom line as well.