Over the past year or two, I have found myself wondering about a better life with personas. Are personas giving us enough or can we do more? Real people’s needs, attitudes and behaviours shift or change over time and sure, there will always be new people that fit a persona, but should we be okay with letting people go? That might be okay for an entertainment app, but it probably is not okay if you want to provide long term customer value. 

Since 1983 we had Alan Cooper to thank for the use of personas in product design. Personas were utilised as a representation of the goals and behaviour of a hypothesised group of users. The data used for the creation of these personas came from interviewing users and capturing behavioral patterns, goals, skills and attitudes, with a few fictional personal details to make the persona a more “realistic” character. 

But let’s be honest, for a lot of companies it only served as a means to reduce arguments in boardrooms between business, developers and designers around the topic of “what users really need”. Self-referential design was a big problem. Everybody believed that they knew what users wanted, because they were users too. Now at least, people could argue for prioritisation of some features, based on a personification of a group of potential customers.

If you think back a little bit, do you still use the same apps you used one, three, five or ten years ago? Why not? Is it because you no longer have the same needs and/ or because your needs have evolved?

Let’s use an example of a Money Management app. For this app, three personas (Young Entrepreneur, House Sharing Student, Homemaker) were identified. For example: If your customers started to use the app and were classified as a “House Sharing Student” persona, how would the app identify that this customer has entered a new life stage, and is now both a student and a “Homemaker”? 

Your customer is now moving into a grey area for functionality and communication. In order to deal with this grey area, we first need to look at how personas can cater better for dynamic people.

  1. Persona Growth – Internal change
    As a human being becomes more experienced, their needs, goals and expectations change, opening up new problems. The persona captures a snapshot in time, but it lacks data on how that persona’s needs and goals will change over time. These changes are nuanced and are not an entirely different set of needs. Starting out as an entrepreneur with a small business, you are not suddenly after a year or two going to make a leap to the “Enterprise” persona. You will have a few additional or expanding needs.
  2. Time – External change
    Over time a person might outgrow a persona. Let’s say for example your persona was a “student in a house share”. The student is now finished with studies and moves in with their partner, which is still technically a “house share”. However the needs of a couple might have similarities with a student house share, but can also be very different. A couple’s goal might be to grow their financial well-being, while a student house share’s goal is only to financially be square with each other. Does this couple now have to stop using your app or find a more suitable one?
  3. Persona Benefit – The knowledge of others.
    Over time a company learns from observing the customers who fall under a persona and what makes some of the customers inside that persona fail or succeed at their goals. This knowledge can be used to the benefit of all of the customers that fall under that persona. For example, in the “student house share” you noticed that when students don’t pay back in 60 days, the groups tend to fall apart. You can now encourage all students to pay back before 60 days run out, in order to preserve the health of their groups.

If you are interested in exploring one or more of these persona “layers”, you can start with asking yourself some of the following questions. How do people progress through life? Is your persona time-or context limited? What might change that you might need to move a customer on to a different or an evolved persona?

If we have a better representation of dynamic people inside our personas, we can tackle this puzzling grey area of functionality and communication.