Using detailed interviews to build personas

This is the fifth post in my Customer Research series.

There are many awesome posts on personas, including this primer by Steve Johnson at Pragmatic Marketing, and this post about how personas serve the CEO and the executive team.  So I am not going to belabor the point.  I’ll simply provide a case study of exactly how I go about building personas.

Before we begin, we must decide whether we are building buyer personas or user personas.   Since I have always worked on the PD/PM side (instead of the PMM side), I almost always end up making user personas first.   Here is the process I use.

1.  Pick a market segment.  Size it.  Make sure the total addressable market (TAM) is big enough to matter.

2. Generate prototype personas.  Draw on your company’s tribal knowledge / theories about customers and prospects, as well as from your own life experiences for this.  Make sure you state assumptions about needs, wants and expectations.

3. Create a screening questionnaire.  Work with a recruiter to find subjects.  Evolve screener as necessary (tweaking the prototype personas as needed).

4. Plan the interviews.

  • Pull together the equipment: a mini DVD camcorder, a tripod, fully charged batteries, camera, laptop for notetaking. (Mini-DVD camcorders result in the least postprocessing overhead.  Finalize the disk and you can watch it instantly.)
  • Staff each interview with 1 researcher who will lead the conversation, and at least 1 support person (in the role of audio/video monkey and notetaker).
  • Every researcher should plan on going to several interviews (overlapping with each other for some of them).
  • Cycle as many staff members through the support role as possible. This exposes everyone to the process and gets people out of the office and into customers’ environments, which is always good.
  • Plan mid term and final debrief sessions with the research team.
  • Plan other work around this work.  It takes at least 1 – 1.5 person days to process each interview. You also need time to reflect on the results.  Expect each researcher to be completely consumed for a good 75% of the time.
  • Share intermediate work products with the team early and often.  Transparency is key to buy-in.

5. Do the interviews. Here are some tips I’ve collected over the past 14 years (your mileage may vary).

  • For best results, detailed interviews should be done in the target environment for product use. That said, an interview at a coffee shop or some other neutral environment is better than no interview at all.
  • Start with an introduction and a warm up section where the subject gets comfortable with the researchers, then ease into the topic of interest.
  • Keep the interview guide short and sweet. Questions should be open ended, inviting the interviewee to talk in their own style and to show their personalities.
  • Be prepared to take the conversation where it wants to go, not where you want it to go.
  • Make sure the subject talks more than you.
  • For certain types of products, you may have to match gender. (e.g. research around a feminine hygiene product will require a female interviewer).
  • Don’t even think about showing a product or product concepts. Discuss your product at the end only if there’s time left over.

6. Build the personas.  With luck, you will have recruited carefully to get the right people, and after 10-20 interviews, they will have self-organized.  You should now be able to build composite personas in each bucket of subjects who share key needs, wants, expectations, and attributes.  Check these personas against the people you met and tweak until they work well.

Once the primary, secondary and non-personas are built, you can begin to use them as a proxy to help you envision what benefits they require, what products or services can deliver these benefits, and how those products and services may look like.

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2 Responses

  1. Steve Johnson
    | Reply


    Thanks for the call-out on my personas article. This is a nice precis of the process of interviewing including the mechanics. Just be cautious that you don’t spend so much time preparing that you never get out to see personas! Some product managers find all of this rather daunting. It’s not! Interviewing is fun.

    Thanks for sharing your insights.


  2. Elaine Chen
    | Reply

    Hi Steve,
    I know – you could get really caught planning and never executing! I tend to spend no more than a calendar week or two to plan, then we just go. We are 1.5 weeks in and on Interview #12 of our current round, with another week to go 😉 This is the best part IMHO – trying to define the who and the why well before the what.

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