Using personas for executive alignment

A few weeks ago my colleague Michelle Zassenhaus suggested we pitch the executive team on a persona research project. We discussed the need and merit of this project for a while without reaching a clear consensus. Where I was getting stuck was the need for this exercise given how much face time we actually have with our customers. We run usability testing every week. We call customers on an ad hoc basis but it amounts to nearly weekly conversations. The company has an annual focus group initiative and our customer service teams are always vocal with prevalent customer issues. In short, we know our users. So why would we need to create personas?

I posed the question to several folks including Tristan Kromer. Tristan suggested that instead of trying to sell the organization on an expensive project where they weren’t sure what they would be getting for their money and we, the UX team, couldn’t cohesively articulate why we were even doing it, we should introduce the executive team to the concept of personas as a corporate alignment tool. The idea seemed not only viable but also valuable. At the end of that lunch-time chat, I promised Tristan I’d write a blog post recapping the activity and its results. And so, here we are ☺ .

I decided to pitch the organization on a proto-persona (aka ad-hoc persona) exercise where the executive team would articulate who they believed we were building products for and how our current and future offerings would meet their needs in the near-term future. My belief was that in each of their points of view, the executive team had a different target audience in mind. In addition, I believed that many of them were approaching corporate strategy from the inside out – in other words, from their particular discipline (e.g., marketing, products/features, services, customer support, etc) and not from a customer-centric point of view. The goal of the exercise was to get everybody’s points of view out on the table and then consolidated into a single, shared consensus about who we believe our customers are and what needs of theirs we should be solving in 2012 and beyond.

We're all on the same page, right?

via Jeff Patton & Luke Barrett who re-created the cartoon from an unknown origin.

My timing could not have been any better. The team was going through the nascent stages of 2012 planning and, if I could have the exercise pulled together quickly, we could build it into their process. I built a quick proposal where I articulated a problem statement, the objectives and goals of the exercise and the specific methodology we would employ to achieve those goals. Michelle and I reviewed it a bit and off it went for executive approval. Luckily for us it was quickly approved and I was cleared to book the executive team for two, 3-hour meetings over the next two weeks.

(It’s worth mentioning that our target audience had broadly expanded in the month prior to these exercises. In October 2011, TheLadders had expanded its market reach from jobs and employers in the $100k+ salary range to all professional jobs. This opened our products and service to a whole new set of potential customers. )

Day 1 – persona creation

Sketching begins!

Pens, paper, ipads and pizza. What else would you need?

The first day consisted of pulling the team together from noon to 3pm (pizzas were brought in) and presenting them a short introduction. The presentation stressed that we were going to look at the company from the customer’s point of view. Our goal was to articulate who the customer was (or were) and what needs they have that we could choose to serve or not serve. Michelle and I introduced the executives to the concept of an ad-hoc persona by explaining that these were going to be “people” they believed were going to be our customers now and in the coming future. It was important for us to stress the difference between real personas and ad-hoc ones. These were not going to be research-proven customer archetypes. They were however going to be reference points which the team can use as filters in the 2012 planning and decision-making process. We closed the short pitch with examples of what they’d be creating.

The team was going to sketch quadrants for each persona. Here is an example of a finished persona:

Example of ad hoc persona

Example of ad hoc persona

The top left quadrant was for a sketch of the individual, a name and some basic demographics.

The top right quadrant was for behaviors and beliefs of the persona.

The bottom left quadrant was for demographics.

The bottom right quadrant was for needs and goals.

The team was given 15 minutes to create as many personas as they could or felt were necessary.

Once complete, each executive presented their persona to the team. They read the persona out loud and posted up on a wall. The team would then provide some feedback on the realistic qualities (or not) of that persona and some real-time adjustments were made.

Marc, CEO of TheLadders, presenting his personas

Marc, CEO of TheLadders, presenting his personas

Next, the team was asked to place each persona on a set of 5 spectrums. The spectrums were: years of experience, education, ambition, risk tolerance and tech savviness. Each executive was given three Agile planning poker cards. The cards had the numbers 1, 3 or 5 on them and the team was asked to vote by raising the card they felt most appropriately mapped where each persona fell on each spectrum.

Team voting with planning poker cards

Team voting with planning poker cards

Much like Agile planning poker, if there was consensus there was minimal discussion. If , however, there were outliers or a broad distribution of opinion on where a particular persona lay on a particular spectrum, we encouraged the team to discuss and debate that. In many cases, the outliers managed to sway some votes. In other cases the majority won and in still other cases the team made real-time adjustments to their personas to more closely match their view of our target audience.

As each name was voted on the spectrum, their name was written on the whiteboard in the appropriate spot. Almost instantly, patterns began to form. There were clear clusters and clear outliers. At the end of the 3 hours exercise we had a board filled with personas and persona names mapped to spectrums.

Spectrums with names mapped on them

Spectrums with names mapped on them

We ended the exercise by thanking the team and letting them go for the day. Michelle and I spent the next few days consolidating the 20+ personas that were created down into a manageable size based on their spectrum distributions. We wanted to get to 3-5. We ended up with 6.

Completed persona

Completed persona

Day 2 – Persona verification and design studio

Day two began with donuts. It was morning and it was early. Donuts help. A lot.

We began the exercise with the team by going over the consolidated set of personas. We’d sent the team the document in advance of the meeting so they would come in , in theory, prepared to discuss. We projected each persona and began a vigorous discussion around their validity not only as a “real” person but also as a customer that we wanted to support moving forward. This part of the exercise truly engaged the team. Strong opinions were presented and an excellent debate ensued around some of the newer customer types were now attracting to the site.

Reviewing the consolidated personas

Reviewing the consolidated personas

Each persona was reviewed in detail and adjusted, in real-time, to provide a representation that the team could agree upon. This was probably the part of the two-day exercise where the most consensus was built. At the end, we still had 6 personas but they were now modified enough to where the team was comfortable with all of them as viable customers (Note: interestingly, one contentious persona had to get down to a vote and made it in as a customer by a vote of 5-4).

The second half of this exercise was a design studio. Many articles have been written about how to run these and we use them regularly with the staff at TheLadders. We modified this one for time and focus. The first 5 minute round of sketching consisted of a single 6-up template for each executive team member.

Sketching at design studio

Sketching at design studio

Each executive presented and got critique from the others. The team was then split into two groups based simply on where they were seated and asked to consolidate their sketches in to one big sticky note drawing. The drawings were all supposed to be of TheLadders.com home page articulating value propositions that were relevant to the 6 personas. Each critique session asked how the designs presented were valid for the various personas. The teams consolidated their visions into two big drawings that amazingly enough converged on similar themes.

Big sketchin'!

Big sketchin'!

We dismissed the team, thanked them for their time and asked for any feedback (good or bad) on the exercise. We followed up with a summary email that recapped what we did and what the themes were that we found. In addition, we stressed again that these were our beliefs and that, now that we had them, we will be using them to drive recruiting for usability studies, compare them against other customer samples and will update and adjust them as we find characteristics of real customers that go against our initial beliefs.

The one final asset we created was a printed deck of persona cards so that these ideas could easily come to any executive meeting – especially the ones where we were not present.

Persona cards - front

Persona cards - front

Persona cards - back

Persona cards - back

Learnings

We had several goals when we set out to run this exercise with the executive team. The first was to introduce them to the concept of personas. We achieved this goal to the extent that the team now knows what this tool is and what components make it up. Given that these were ad-hoc personas, it is incumbent on us, the UX team, to continue to update the 6 personas we created as we learn more from actual user interactions. We must then update the executives with these new details.

The second goal was to get the executive team thinking from a customer-centric point of view. For the duration of the exercise we succeeded though it was a constant effort to keep the conversation focused this way. Each executive’s tendency was to fall back to their traditional points of view based on their responsibilities and, as moderators, it was our job to bring the focus back to the customers. One additional thing that I found particularly interesting was the team’s tendency to present their feedback and insights to me, the moderator, as opposed to their teammates. Our goal was to have the team debating each other and, while that happened at times, much of the conversation was happening with the moderator (Michelle or I) as the initial recipient who would then bounce the dialogue back to the team. Beyond the exercise, it’s too early to tell how successful we’ve been. Our hope is that the printed card deck will serve as a reminder for the team.

The third goal was align the executive team around a target audience and get them to debate and agree upon value propositions that serve the needs and goals of that audience. Again, within the constraints of the exercise I believe we were successful. We created over 20 ad-hoc personas and consolidated down to an agreed-upon set of six. We designed landing pages for those personas that spoke to the value of the products and services we’d offer them in 2012. There was consistency in the themes the team raised and a general acknowledgment of a shared understanding. Will this alignment last into future planning meetings? Again, it’s too early to tell but early indications point to only minor erosion of these initial ideas.

Finally, there was an unspoken goal to bring design thinking, gamestorming and traditional UX practices into the executive suite. We wanted to see how it would fare and how the team would react. It was our hope that this would give UX an even stronger foothold at the executive level then it enjoys today. Given the feedback received, the team enjoyed the exercise and saw value in it. Whether we’ll get invited back will be answered in time.

[Jeff]

About Jeff Gothelf

Jeff Gothelf is an agile product designer, teacher, writer and team leader. He is one of the leading voices on the topic of Agile UX and Lean UX. In addition, Jeff is the author of the O'Reilly book (2013), Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience (www.leanuxbook.com). He is a highly sought-after international keynote speaker, workshop leader & trainer. Currently Jeff is a Principal at Neo Innovation in NYC (www.neo.com).
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