Persona Development and the Law of Averages

  |  January 14, 2005   |  Comments

Personas are complex, like your customers. Don't be fooled into wrapping them into an 'average' user.

"Persona" is a hot buzzword in this industry, yet most companies that create personas haven't fully embraced everything they have to offer. Most personas are watered-down and hard to relate to. The worst of the lot are lifeless outlines of a company's demographic targets. Most often, they don't deliver the expected outcome from using the persona approach.

I'm contributing to a book about the persona development process with experts Tamara Adlin from and John Pruitt from Microsoft. I don't have the space here to get into the nitty-gritty, but there are best practices you can use to maximize your persona set potential.

Pruitt, who pioneered persona development for Microsoft, comments:

Our goal was to help a development team understand and focus on a set of target users. We read Cooper's 1999 book and looked around the industry and our company to see how other teams had defined their audiences and communicated that information to their broader team.

As Pruitt's team learned more about personas, it uncovered the same pitfalls I've seen many others teams fall into:

  • The personas weren't believable.

  • Persona attributes weren't communicated well across the design team.

  • Teams had little understanding of exactly how to use personas.

  • There was sparse early commitment. Some departments used personas, some didn't.

Creating profitable personas shouldn't be a mysterious process, but neither is it simplistic. It involves a practical application of science, customer research, psychology, and customer empathy, which already exists in most successful sales processes.

First Step: Avoid the Averages

During a New York City Usability Professionals event, the respected SBI.Razorfish team made a well thought out presentation on personas. Team members told of the importance of researching and sorting customers into segments, even creating a set of personas. Then, they promoted designing for an average, or primary, persona. This is common in many design circles.

You've probably heard the joke about the statistician who drowned in the course of wading across a river with an average depth of four feet.

Using a primary persona for your site design, or for on- and offline marketing efforts, is a lot like wading across that river. There's simply no such thing as an average person. Therefore, there's little benefit in summing your customers up into a bland, primary persona.

Unless your greatest desire is to design an average Web site with weak conversion, avoid average personas.

The differences your persona celebrates are critical to designing a persuasive Web site. Divergent personas help ensure relevancy across your entire customer base. This applies to more than just e-commerce and lead-generation Web sites. Effective personas work for a variety of applications, such as business-to-business (B2B), business-to-consumer (B2C), marketing campaigns, and products.

Creating a primary persona is an attempt to simplify the design process. It's a natural tendency, and simplification in many cases is noble. But allow the process only to be as simple as your customers will allow. To properly harness its benefits, a persona set must embody customers' divergent segments of motivations, needs, and preferences.

Personas Must Be Believable

Personas at their best evoke empathy in a process that's easily hijacked by technical imperatives and self-serving, company-focused needs. A design team must work with personas that seem like real people, people that can be conversed with, ideas bounced off of, joked with, related to.

Pruitt puts it this way:

Personas invoke this powerful human capability and bring it to the design process. Well-designed personas are generative: Once fully engaged with them, you can almost effortlessly project them into new situations. In contrast, [designing for] a scenario covers just what it covers.

A few methods to mold lifelike personas:

  • Include rich details about a persona's life: hobbies, quirky attitudes, anything that keeps the persona from being a cliché. If your persona doesn't generate affection or opinion from your team, in all likelihood it's too generic.

  • Include a quote from each persona. Use transcripts of customer service conversations or email.

  • Track down just the right photo. If the picture just doesn't seem to fit, it won't evoke empathy.

No "Right" Number of Personas

The usual number of necessary personas is "a handful." Too few is as bad as too many. Even in the most complex Web redesigns, we've never seen a need for more than seven personas per business.

Ultimately, the number of personas should reflect the number of primary motivations to purchase your product/service that exist within your customer base. Sometimes, personas have identical motivations but dramatically different needs.

Sara and Josie are both in the market for an antivirus program. They're both motivated by an almost paranoid fear of losing important computer data. Yet Sara is much more advanced than Josie, who just ordered "Video Professor" and doesn't know the difference between a taskbar and a system tray. Sara needs highly technical, detailed information about the software. Josie requires a basic understanding of exactly what she needs in antivirus software solutions.

It's also important for the personas to represent customers at different stages of the buying process.

Personas are complex creatures, like your customers. Don't get fooled into wrapping them up into a single or primary "average" user (unless, of course, you're the only company in the world with average customers). Designing for personas is the only way to properly design scent trails that lead your customers to what they find most relevant and to instigate what you find most relevant: a conversion.

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Bryan Eisenberg

Bryan Eisenberg is co-founder and chief marketing officer (CMO) of IdealSpot. He is co-author of the Wall Street Journal, Amazon, BusinessWeek, and New York Times best-selling books Call to Action, Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?, and Always Be Testing, and Buyer Legends. Bryan is a keynote speaker and has keynoted conferences globally such as Gultaggen,, Direct Marketing Association, MarketingSherpa, Econsultancy, Webcom, the Canadian Marketing Association, and others for the past 10 years. Bryan was named a winner of the Marketing Edge's Rising Stars Awards, recognized by eConsultancy members as one of the top 10 User Experience Gurus, selected as one of the inaugural iMedia Top 25 Marketers, and has been recognized as most influential in PPC, Social Selling, OmniChannel Retail. Bryan serves as an advisory board member of several venture capital backed companies such as Sightly, UserTesting, Monetate, ChatID, Nomi, and BazaarVoice. He works with his co-author and brother Jeffrey Eisenberg. You can find them at

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