Recent buzz about personas has created some confusion. If you've tried to develop and deploy personas, you may have experienced resistance from other departments because they don't grasp the value that personas purportedly provide. The reason may be that personas (in the form of customer profiles) by themselves don't offer all that much.

But personas are not just customer profiles; rather, "personas" is the title for a complex tool that has four components:

  1. Persona descriptions
  2. Scenarios
  3. Insights
  4. Innovation opportunity handoff

Only if you complete all four parts will your Personas offer their true value: the ability to translate customer research into valuable innovation and action.

Part 1: Persona Descriptions

Because we marketers often find information about customers to be interesting in its own right, we can mistakenly assume that people in other departments will see value in customer data, too. This assumption is dangerous because it might let us stop at the first layer of persona development.

Persona descriptions are receptacles that capture and communicate what market research knows about our customers. A persona description is a customer profile of a typical customer's attributes, which illustrate the segment the persona represents. The persona description contains demographic information, behavioral and attitudinal information, and information about customers' needs and goals that relate to the interest area your company addresses.

As such, persona descriptions are good vehicles for communicating your relevant customer data in terms that are easy to understand and remember. But they do not alone provide enough direction for product managers, developers, and sales people to get them excited.

Part 2: Scenarios

A scenario describes a typical customer (your persona) engaged in the typical tasks* and activities that allow him to achieve a specific goal. Like persona descriptions, scenarios are based in research, both quantitative and qualitative, and are relevant to the products and services your company provides. Scenarios may show how customers currently interact with your company's specific products or services, or may be more "product or process neutral."

A good scenario—and this is where your understanding of your internal audience's capabilities and culture comes in to play—is written specifically for the team that will use it. A product management team needs a user persona using the product in question. A marketing collateral team needs a buyer persona engaged in a buying process, with emphasis on the reasons why and channels from which he is gathering information. A sales team needs an economic buyer persona and a technological buyer persona engaged in conversations that result in a decision to purchase.

This first round of scenarios should communicate what you know from ethnographic research about what customers currently do to achieve their goals, and this information is the first step toward making your personas actually useful to other teams.

*Scenario task descriptions and workflows are at a relatively high level. Use cases break scenarios down to describe tasks at a very granular level for developers.

Part 3: Generate Insights

Persona descriptions (Part 1) describe background information about customers. Scenarios (Part 2) show those personas in action and achieving their goals. But all that research-based information is useful to your internal teams only if it results in insights. Use your personas' and scenarios' illustrations of frustrations and goals to help teams generate those insights.

Show the gap between what customers currently do to achieve their goals and what they might prefer to do to achieve their goals.

First, you create scenarios describing current typical tasks and behaviors that you observed in your ethnographic research (see Part 2). Then, you collaborate with the teams using your personas to also create ideal scenarios, which show your personas engaged in more pleasant, more satisfying usage and/or buying experiences—the experiences that your customers would enjoy having.

An insight is a focused observation about a gap between your customers' actual experience and a possible experience that would either relieve a point of pain or actually take them all the way to enjoyment. An insight statement takes on a form something like this: "Our customers want X, are frustrated by Y, and would be much happier if we could provide Z."

Part 4: Innovation Opportunity Handoff

The last portion of that statement, "if we could provide Z," is the place where market research ends and innovation begins. Your company has an opportunity to innovate based on the insights that personas and scenarios provide when they highlight the gap between what customers currently do and ideally would enjoy doing. Other departments can then apply their best skills to close that gap.

Product managers, designers, and developers close the gap with innovations that make your product easier to use. Marketers close the gap with messaging innovations that provide the right information at the right time in the right place.

Personas and scenarios provide insights for successful innovation by identifying very specific customer problems that your teams have the capacity to solve. Let the designers design the product solutions, the message crafters write the messaging, and the sales people consult with customers, but help them do it well by handing them personas and scenarios that illuminate the best places to focus in order to truly please customers.

* * *

Personas are useful only if they include all four parts: Simple customer profiles, even ones bursting with rich, research-based attributes and details, are not enough; you must also carefully consider each of your internal departments' capabilities, and then generate scenarios and insights that translate your customer data into innovation opportunities.

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Angela Quail is SVP of customer insights at Goal Centric Management, Inc. (, where she and partner Tony Zambito offer training and creation of user and buyer personas.