Imaginary Friends: How to Understand Your Customers

Couple sitting on red chairs in front of green house with white picket fence.
I’ve never gone into business to make money… by focusing on the happiness of our customers, we have been able to build a successful group of companies. – Richard Branson 

I love to travel. When I first started exploring the world after university, location and cost were the most important factors in choosing a place to stay. In the hill stations of Kerala, India, this was taken to the extreme of sleeping in a barn! The barn was the only spot available in a town that was unexpectedly swamped with people visiting a holy man, Sathya Sai Baba. Later in Sri Lanka, I ended up sleeping in a monastery.  The monastery was near to a Buddhist holy site and came with the bonus activity of helping to serve the resident monks a meal! 

More recently, what I look for in a place to stay on vacation has changed. Location is still important, but I’m much less willing to give up comfort. I will pay more and travel further for better amenities: a comfortable bed, scenic surroundings, and great staff. Sure, I like a bargain (I’m part Scottish after all!) but I’m not keen to sleep in a barn any longer if I can help it!  My husband and I loved staying in B&B’s when we were exploring Canada.  We were always greeted with a friendly smile and a great breakfast to start the day. Our hosts also gave us tips that only a local could provide.  On business trips, I stay in hotels for efficiency and a better location. My needs were different at different stages of my life and different situations. There isn’t one size to fit all for travel accommodations. 

Each of these venues had to understand their target customer.  That’s true for any business.  Knowing their target audience makes a difference in how to design their product or service. We can capture the target audience in personas, a user experience tool that I use when designing software products. Personas are a way of making your target audience more concrete by imaging them as a fictional character. How do you start? 

1. Create a headline 

Think about your ideal customer based on what you know about the market. Choose a picture for your persona from your own photos or stock photos and give them a name. The name and picture will help you to remember the persona and think of them as a real person. It also provides a shortcut to representing other characteristics of the person such as gender and age.  Now identify their profession, such as college student or small business owner, and put that in the headline too if it is important in defining their other characteristics.

Next, pick out a quote that represents your persona. The quote adds flavour and captures the essence of their personality. 

2. Add characteristics 

Now you want to fill in more detail about your persona including their gender, age, profession, hobbies, interests, education – whatever is relevant to the product or service you are designing for them. Describe the environment in which they use your product. Think about their outlook and attitudes, and other products that they also use. Base this as much as possible on the attributes of people who actually use your product or similar competitive products. 

3. Identify their Goals 

Next, think about what motivates this person to use your product. What are the most critical things they are trying to achieve? Efficiency? Status? Cost savings? Knowing these goals will help you to make sure your product provides the features with the best match to what is important for your users. So talk to your customers to find out what really matters to them. You can also read online reviews or talk to customer service reps to get a better perspective on the needs of your most important customers.  Then add them in bullet points to your persona.

4. Describe a Day in Their Life 

Finally, walk through your persona’s use of the product or service you are offering.  Include the full journey from preparing to use the product, through different situations (or scenarios) and incorporate any relevant details. Highlight any frustrations with their current (or past) situation and how your product helps them to overcome any difficulties.  Write down these key points but be concise – you need to try to make everything fit onto a single page.

Once you have completed your persona, get some feedback on it from others. Does it sound like a real person? Does it make sense? Tweak these descriptions until they feel right. 

Congratulations!  Your first persona is done.  Put this page up above your desk (remember it fits on one page?) and refer to it often. Use the persona to help drive decisions that will delight your customers. Have you used personas to help design and improve your products? I’d love to hear about it! 


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