When mapping customer journeys, it would help to design and direct them with regard to personas of customers, ‘profile’ concepts of plausible types of customers that seem real and approachable. Having the image of a customer before one’s eyes with human traits, background, attitudes and preferences, can make it easier to plan and prepare for interactions with customers. For instance, it may allow a company to more accurately anticipate different kinds of journeys and to devise policies and techniques for its representatives or agents how to respond appropriately to the respective customers. Personas can help, however, in other types of projects such as planning a new service scheme or designing a new product. Personas are meant to make target segments feel more personal and tangible to the managers and employees facing them.
The progress of a journey shapes how customers experience it (e.g., friendly, helpful, enjoyable). It may be a single interaction or a combination of interactive sessions (e.g., by digital means & phone calls); it could be a sequence of activities undertaken through a purchase decision process (e.g., a shopper journey), or in the course of receiving a service. Not every experience has to be described as a journey, for instance operating one’s smartphone or a washing machine, but using these products also generates experiences. The characteristics of different types or personas of customers are likely to impact how a service, product, or interaction with company’s representatives or self-service tools is experienced. For example:
- Customers who are digital savvy, getting along with anything digital, or digital strugglers;
- Consumers who are more open-minded and welcome innovations versus more conservative and hesitant consumers;
- Consumers who are more health-conscious and try to behave more responsibly with regard to their health in comparison to consumers who do not care so much about the health consequences of their consumption decisions and actions.
The roots of specifying personas can be found in lifestyle research in the 1990s, when constructing lifestyle segments, and choosing from them the target segments suitable for a given product (e.g., food and drinks) or service (e.g., banking, tourism). A profile of a ‘representative’ consumer could be compiled for each segment based on lifestyle, attitudinal and demographic characteristics relatively salient (i.e., statistically, more strongly present) in that segment. It was even better if a formal profile were translated into a story describing the ‘representative’ consumer for the segment as a person we can imagine before our eyes as someone real. Yet, general-purpose lifestyle models could be too loose and abstract for effective application to a focal product or service; hence, it was necessary to include more domain-specific characteristics relevant to the type of product or service concerned in order to make the ‘persona’ more meaningful and practical for the marketing planning and resolutions devised by a company using the lifestyle model.
It seems that contemporary approaches to research on personas drive at something more complex: planning and defining plausible target segments (e.g., based on prior criteria, business practice and experience), adding information from models such as lifestyle & personality segmentation, and then draw information from a myriad of sources (e.g., quantitative and qualitative research, CRM system, social media) to construct personas that can be closely matched with the target segments.
Isabelle Zdatny and Bruce Temkin of the Experience Management (XM) Institute at Qualtrics define Persona as: “A vivid description of a prototypical person within a specific segment” (“Five Phases for Creating Powerful Personas“, 23 February 2021). They identify seven elements included in a well crafted persona: (1) Segment title; (2) Name; (3) Demographic information; (4) Persona story; (5) Key characteristics; (6) Indicative quote; (7) Photo. The persona is not a particular known customer in existence — it may be built on the basis of an exemplar customer chosen as better representative of a segment but then augmented with additional typical characteristics, or by constructing a persona from scratch as a combination of characteristics to create the prototypical customer-person in the segment.
The persona is introduced through a vivid story (see their Figure 3). One does not have to be too inventive for generating an indicative quote — the quote can be adopted from an in-depth interview with an actual customer similar to the persona, phone or chat interaction recorded in CRM system, a post or discussion in social media forum. Key characteristics should detail aspects of behaviour distinctive of a customer-persona representing a segment, but moreover they should emphasise attitudinal dispositions and behavioural inclinations towards the domain of products and services concerned (e.g., understanding of channel / domain, preference for self-help; see their Figure 4). This element should exhibit the distinctive characteristics most relevant to the design project and practical for application. The photo will give the persona “a distinct visual identity and make it alive in the minds of the persona users”, that is, as enhancement to vividness of the story. Zdatny and Temkin suggest that the photo should be “polished and professional looking”, and propose using a free stock photo as long as it is high-quality and does not appear too staged. (Note: if one wishes to avoid association with the portrait of a real person, AI and computer vision tools allow modifying actual faces and mixing features from several faces to compose fabricated portraits that look as if they were of real persons.)
In the centrepiece of their article, Zdatny and Temkin present five phases of a research and development process for building personas: (1) Preparation; (2) Research; (3) Analysis; (4) Creation; and (5) Deployment. Each phase is described and explained in detail, with practical steps and considerations that need to be made in each phase. It can be used as a helpful roadmap to guide managers through the process of creating personas. However, it is not necessarily advisable for managers to try to implement this process by following the instructions as in a ‘guidebook’ independently without the direction of and execution by research professionals, who deeply understand the subject and methodology. That is because the process Zdatny and Temkin lay out is far from trivial or straightforward, entails multiple issues that require special care, and it is not always clear how things fit in. For example, when they say in the Analysis phase: “It is incredibly difficult to tease out underlying themes and relationships from raw data that comes from different places and lives in different forms”, it is obvious that this process is not like a walk in the park. It may help managers understand what researchers such as the authors are doing as they work through the process, especially when they accompany the researchers as the clients and future users of the personas (including the concepts summarised by the stories and the ‘documents’ that showcase relevant distinct attributes of each segment-persona).
One reason for concern is the attempt to compile and integrate information from too many sources and of too many types to construct each persona (e.g., surveys, in-depth interviews and ethnographic research, customer records and history of interactions, discourse in social media networks). It is a new world of information and Big Data, but one may still stand the risk of drowning in information when aiming eventually to construct a comprehensible and coherent persona (for illustration, see the ‘sticking notes’ in Figure 9 with attributes that researchers have to screen and put together). Another issue regards the number of personas to construct for a design project. In particular, a question can be raised if one prototypical persona is sufficient to represent each target segment. Suppose three target segments are defined, but between one and three personas may be specified per segment that will capture and emphasise different sets of aspects within each segment (without breaking-down and creating too many segments). Due to high variability among customers, that may be hard to squeeze into very few segments, and given also the large amount of rich and versatile information, it may be necessary to consider defining more than one persona per segment (in the example above, we may allow for up to ten personas for obtaining an operational model).
Designing customer experiences with exemplars of personas in mind has great attraction — the persona can serve as an anchor for focusing and directing the efforts of designing a better matching solution for a target segment. The process of creating personas should nevertheless be manageable and cost-effective with respect to the degree of effort required to construct the personas, especially as the aim is to arrive at personas that are relevant, comprehensible, practical and approachable.