[Posted by Jonathan Browne]

About ten years ago, when Forrester was writing some of our early research on effective Web design, we noticed a pattern among leading companies. They told us they were finding it very helpful to use design personas – models of customers based on qualitative research into real customers, but presented as vivid stories about individuals (not segment descriptions). These tools enabled them to stay focused on the needs of their most important customers when designing online experiences.

Since then, design personas have become fairly mainstream design tools in North American companies, and increasingly common in Europe and Japan – not only for Web design, but across all channels. However, the quality of personas varies enormously from company to company. For example, I'm evaluating personas from UK interactive agencies at the moment and although some are clearly well researched, engaging, helpful to designers and believable, others seem to be mere stereotypes.

Why is this? I think one of the main reasons is because some firms just pay lip-service to the idea of customer centric design, while others truly obsess about their customers – which is one of the three principles that companies must embrace to achieve Experience Based Differentiation. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to convince business stakeholders that they need new customer insights. Furthermore, it's not always clear to researchers what kinds of insight they should be seeking when they observe or interview customers.

So what's a customer experience professional to do when he is faced with business stakeholders who view qualitative research methods with skepticism? And how can persona creation teams ensure that they pay attention to the right things when they're doing their research?

I interviewed several design experts who deal with these challenges by using "Assumption Personas" at an early stage in the design process. Essentially, assumption personas are imagined profiles of customers that are created in collaborative sessions with key stakeholders rather than derived from primary research.

Wow! So stereotypes are OK?

Well … They are not OK as design tools. It's important to understand that these imagined profiles may be riddled with errors, prejudices, false assumptions and inaccuracies. Don't take the risk of designing products, channels or messages based on them. The reason they're valuable is because they help CXP professionals to:

  • Prove the need for a shared customer model.
  • Make the case for funding ethnographic research.
  • Generate hypotheses to test with the research.

I've written about the reasons to use assumption personas and the best practices for getting good results from them in my latest research for Forrester clients – Assumption Personas Help Overcome Hurdles To Using Research-Based Design Personas.

In organizations that don't have a lot of experience with qualitative research, it's vital to get buy-in from the business stakeholders and to make sure that the first projects are demonstrably successful. Do you have other techniques for doing this? Have you had success in getting organizations to obsess about customers and use customer insights more effectively? What has worked for you? Please let me know by adding a comment to this post.