Product management is all about choices. Making decisions about what opportunities are worth chasing, which problems are worth solving, what features will provide the most value, what the best time-to-market trade-offs are, and which customers are most important. While you’ll never make all the right choices, you have to make most of them right for your product to succeed.

One of my favorite tools for helping to make the hard decisions is a persona (aka user profile). For those that don’t know what a persona is, they are a technique for capturing the important learnings from interviewing users and customers, and identifying and understanding the different types of people that will be using your product. The persona is an archetype description of an imaginary but very plausible user that personifies these traits – especially their behaviors, attitudes, and goals.

The tool was first described in 1998 in one of my all-time favorite books, “The Inmates are Running the Asylum,” by Alan Cooper. If you haven’t read this book you should. It’s a classic for product managers, designers and engineers.

There’s a good chance that your designers already use personas in the design process. The design community seems to have adopted this technique as most of the design teams I meet use this tool. Each has their own spin on what makes a good persona, and some are much more formal about them than others, but in my view it’s all good.

And there’s even a chance your marketing people use personas as they create their messaging and advertising programs. This use of personas is similar, and they’re both useful, but they’re not quite the same thing as they are used for somewhat different purposes. The marketing folks are trying to determine the best ways to reach the target customers and appeal to the underlying emotions. The designers care most about the user’s goals and online behaviors.

As product manager, this is all extremely useful to you.

Unfortunately, while this is a truly powerful tool, it is often not employed until later in the product definition/discovery process than it should be. Often it is the designers that drive this, and they are all too often brought in later in the process than they should be.

To get the true potential of personas, the product manager needs to be deeply involved in the creation and prioritization of the personas, and especially the user interviews and research that goes into identifying them. The creation of the personas should be a collaboration between the product manager and interaction designer, and if you are lucky enough to have them, your user research team. But whatever you do, don’t delegate this task. For the same reason that the product manager needs to be at every usability test of his product, he needs to be at every user interview. The product manager needs that deep understanding of the target user that comes from talking with as many users and customers as possible.

So I try to encourage product managers to actively participate in the creation of these personas, and make sure they are done as early in the process as possible.

The design community has written pretty extensively on personas so I won’t try to duplicate that here, other than to point out some issues as they relate to product managers.

There are quite a few benefits of using personas as a tool for product management:

– Personas help you prioritize what’s important. If you have decided to make “Mary” the target for this release, then if this feature is critical for “Mary” then put it in, if it’s for “Sam” then it’s out. As you can see, just as important as deciding who a release is for, is deciding who it is not for. It is an extremely common mistake for a product to try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one. This process can help prevent that.

– One of the most common mistakes product teams make is confusing themselves with their customers. I’ve written elsewhere about this problem, but one thing I really like about personas is that they help shine a light on this all too prevalent problem.

– Many products have many types of users – different types of end-users, managers, administrators, etc, and it’s easy to think that you should just put some features in for each of these people, and again, end up with a muddled mess. This is partly a design problem, but personas often help you prioritize the importance of these different users, and also realize where you need a separate user experience.

– Personas are a very useful tool for describing to your entire product team who the product is for, how they will use it, and why they will care.

– More generally, just like the manifesto/product principles, personas have the benefit of rallying the team around a common vision. There are literally thousands of details that will have to be addressed in the course of a product release. The Product Manager (or designer) can’t possibly make every one. If every manager, designer, writer, developer, and tester has taken the product principles and personas to heart, then when faced with an open question, they are more likely to make the right call.

These are some pretty great benefits. But there are also some pitfalls to watch out for:

– Some teams create personas but they don’t take the next step which is to make the hard choices about which persona should be the priority. It’s not ok to say your product is for everyone. You’re deluding yourself. While this is extremely difficult for most product managers, I try hard to get the product manager to focus each release on a single primary persona. It’s not that the release won’t be useful and usable by others, but your focus on each release should be to do a great job for this one type of target user.

– Sometimes teams create personas based on their assumptions and stereotypes of their users, and they don’t actually take the time to talk to real users and verify if these theoretical people really exist. I have been surprised many times. So many times in fact that I have learned just to consider my initial impressions as just a theory, and hold off on the real judgments until after talking with real users.

– One question that often comes up is that as you recruit users for your prototype testing, do you only test with users from your primary persona? Certainly you need to make sure your product is great for the people that it is intended for, however, you’ll want to test with some people from outside this persona as well, as you won’t have the luxury of having only primary personas using your product. So for prototype testing, you’ll want to recruit a range of reasonably-possible users.

If you haven’t done so already, consider creating a persona to describe your primary target user for your next release, and see if you can’t use this tool to help you make the hard choices.

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