Chasing Ghosts: What App Developers Get Wrong About Their Customers

Today, consumers rely on apps to get things done. With more than half using apps to look for products, companies can’t ignore the power of well-built apps to push them forward.

Life takes place on apps these days. But not every app is worth the space it takes up on your device, and a lot of that has to do with a mismatch between your needs and what the app offers.

Today, consumers rely on apps to get things done. Nearly a third of all customers utilize apps for contactless checkout; a similar percentage use apps to pay for purchases online. With more than half using apps to look for products and nearly 40 percent accessing reviews this way, companies can’t ignore the power of well-built apps to push them forward.

I sat down with Kim Stearns, director of product management at Synapse Studios, to talk about why developers ignore personas — but can’t afford to.

Gary Drenik: Why do so many developers sidestep building data-driven personas?

Kim Stearns: In the starkest terms, software developers always have more work to do than time to complete it. They’re often asked to deliver solutions on quick turnarounds or put out fires, meaning they don’t have a lot of time to invest in learning about their users. When you’re short on time and resources, it’s easy for devs and leadership to assume they “know” their customers best. Or even worse, that they’re the same as their customers.

Personas are helpful because they utilize data to confirm — or, more importantly, disprove! — assumptions teams have about the end user to truly humble a team. In software development, we care about behavior drivers rather than demographics or psychographics. The “soft” in “software” literally means malleable, and personas are a great way to take advantage of this flexibility with speed and just enough precision to drastically improve your product experience for the end user as a result.

Drenik: Which kinds of behavior drivers are particularly important in app development?

Stearns: When it comes to app development, retention, and repeated use over periods of time are particularly important measures of user behavior. Teams can pinpoint their own important behaviors by identifying all the activities a customer can perform to drive retention, acquisition, activation, and ultimately referral and revenue.

For example, in an e-commerce business, sales are surely important (revenue), percentage of new customer sales monthly (activation), percentage of new site visitors monthly (acquisition), etc. If we’ve done a good job driving these behaviors, we might see repeat purchases (retention), referrals, or other loyalty behaviors.

Once we think we understand our customers’ desired behavior, the trick is finding out if your solution to the customers’ problem is actually performing the way it’s been designed to — and learning how wrong we are fast!

Drenik: What are the best routes for gathering the data needed to build personas?

Stearns: Thankfully, just like most big, scary problems, there’s a simple solution our production development teams employ. We like to talk to customers. We create continuous customer discovery and feedback programs to keep a funnel of conversations flowing. In a world where reviews and ratings rule, if you’re not already doing this, chances are your customers will be having conversations about you, whether you’re there or not. Why not open the door for everyone?

By having frequent, open-ended conversations, we learn customers’ ever-evolving needs, pain points, job functions, etc. Gathering this data may show us that accountants love a certain functionality but use it for forecasting, not invoicing like we expected. Which pain point did we miss, and how can we adapt? What has changed in their environment that might be prompting this? Have they adopted a competitor's tool since then? We can uncover why things are happening to pair with “What is actually happening?” which can be uncovered through analytics data, adoption and retention data, sales reports, customer support ticket trends, etc.

Personas need to be as specific as possible. If they’re too broad, you’re targeting everybody. The goal is to narrow your persona’s goals so you can articulate what your product needs to do — or not do. If you keep refining a persona, you’re doing it right.

According to a recent Prosper Insights & Analytics survey, more than half of Gen-X though Gen- Z does its banking online. That’s a huge indicator of the goals these audiences want to achieve, allowing us to dig further to determine why and seek how we can make achieving them easier.

Drenik: Can you explain the value proposition canvas tool your firm uses?

Stearns: At Synapse, we use the Value Proposition Canvas, which centers on the Customer Jobs Theory, allowing us to generate both a customer profile and a corresponding value proposition to be tested against actual customer data and feedback.

We start by grouping customer segments by their “Jobs-to-be-Done,” which focuses on behavior sets that distinguish customers from one another, such as Uber — distinguishing between two distinct segments “riders who are finding a ride to the airport” and “drivers who are looking for a flexible job.”

The customer profile is completed by visualizing an understanding of the tasks or “jobs” a customer “hires” a product to perform for them and uncovers friction that prevents their job from being done (pains) and what opportunities (gains) would be available to them if their needs were met. In the Uber example for the driver segment, jobs might be a flexible career or side gig, pains might be vehicle ownership, insurance premiums, safety and security concerns, and opportunities might be more leisure time and freedom.

We create a single value proposition canvas for each customer profile and continue to refine them as we learn more. We sometimes even ask customers to confirm that the jobs we’ve outlined are correct and inclusive of reality (and you can ask to rank them by importance for even juicier data). This allows us to continuously uncover trends and create flexible, lightweight personas that evolve over time.

Drenik: How do personas make brands more competitive? In other words, what’s the payoff?

Stearns: By ignoring customer research, you run the risk of not only wasting time, money, and resources, but it’s also a casualty of knowledge: The entire team missed the mark in meeting the customer’s needs. For example, a recent Prosper Insights & Analytics survey found nearly half of all respondents regularly use their smart home assistants. For a smart-home automation product, understanding this growing trend can mean the difference between success and failure.

Unless your product roadmap is being influenced by dynamic data-informed personas, you’re just chasing phantoms by building endless features that never result in business improvements or create new, bigger problems. When teams truly adopt a customer listening strategy informed by personas, you’ll often hear this in glowing feedback from customers: “It feels like it was designed just for me!”

If that hasn’t convinced you, maybe this will: If you’re not obsessively listening to customers and adapting your product, I can all but guarantee that your competitors will.

Drenik: That’s a great reminder, Kim, that these apps aren’t developed in a bubble. We appreciate your insights on this topic and hope to connect with you again in the near future.

Kim Stearns
Kim Stearns
Director of Product
Kim Stearns is the Director of Product Management at Synapse Studios. She oversees the product management and UX teams at Synapse Studios and has a passion for helping clients to build data-driven products that users love.

Ready to start your project?