Personas in Software Development: The Often-Overlooked Key to Product Success

Persona development simply increases the chances of software development success. Here’s a quick breakdown of how to create a data-driven persona.

Time is rarely on anyone’s side, as software developers are often reminded. Almost any development team, as you well know, will be tasked with the responsibility of delivering solutions on such a tight timeline that certain “essentials” sometimes fall to the wayside. And being so close to the product can leave many executives, leadership teams, and product development teams feeling a bit overconfident in their grasp of what customers want—without actually ever trying to understand customer needs.

Though this should go without saying, it’s of utmost importance that a team building a product “get” the customer. In fact, they should be the ones directly interacting with end users frequently to arrive at a first-hand understanding of customer needs. If done any other way, such as by building endless features for potential sales contracts you’re trying to land, you risk a misalignment between assumption and reality. This doesn’t just run the risk of wasting resources if the features go unsold or unused but can also lead to poor product performance due to mistranslations of needs and wants, which equates to poor business outcomes—if not damage to company reputation.

The answer to this problem can often be found in persona development. Personas in software development are much like personas in any other industry but with more emphasis on behavior drivers and less on demographics and psychographics. Users with varying levels of income still navigate a checkout similarly; they just may choose different products to buy. If you don’t have a shared understanding of customer needs and what drives these behaviors, it’s like throwing spaghetti at the wall. You never know what’ll stick.

The Data-Driven Persona Development Process

Fortunately, the persona development process is lightweight, nimble, and relatively easy to implement. It’s also never been easier or cheaper to gather persona data than it is today. Any time spent on the process will actually end up saving many multipliers of time, money, and resources later on in development. There’s just no excuse not to spend the time understanding and continuing to understand your customers. It all starts with knowing what persona data to care about when it comes to software development to craft personas and grow your understanding of customer needs from a variety of perspectives. These personas aren’t market segments with lifestyle habits typically used in marketing. For software development, personas focus on functionality, behaviors, and emotions, along with the customer experience with our product or service. Here’s a quick breakdown of how to create a data-driven persona in software development:

1. Visualize what you think you know about customers. At Synapse, we employ a tool known as the value proposition canvas. It allows us to explore our assumptions about customers by delving into their pains, gains, and jobs-to-be-done, and tying it back to our client’s value drivers. One area of the value proposition canvas centers on the important concept of Jobs Theory, which visualizes our understanding of the jobs customers hire our product or service for in order to realize value. Think of it as dissecting your promise to consumers into its distinct parts to drive strategies toward allowing customers to realize the gain creators and pain alleviators our product or service offers. These parts are then used to craft dynamic customer profiles representative of these segments and their distinct functional and behavioral needs.

Start asking yourself what would make customers happy. What job is our customer hiring our product or service to do for them? What are they doing to solve this today? What’s getting in their way of accomplishing this job? As you consider these sorts of questions, you can compare your answers with what your product or service offers (or needs to start offering). It all starts with understanding customer needs before you can arrive at data-driven personas for software development customers.

2. Test your understanding of customers. It’s important to remember that until you test your personas, they’re just what we in the biz like to call a WAG, or a “wild-ass guess.” Thankfully, it’s never been easier to test and validate our understanding of customers directly. This can be done through a variety of qualitative and quantitative research methods including interviews, surveys, direct observation, usability studies, and desk research. It’s only through talking to and hearing from customers that we can test our assumptions about the needs, pains, gains, and jobs they need to perform. 

If direct access to customers isn’t possible, the next best alternative is using a proxy to customers by collaborating with customer service or sales teams on a regular basis: These customer-facing teams can provide greater insights into consumers, and their understanding can further shape personas in software development that evolve and change through feedback over time.

3. Continuously evolve your understanding of customer needs. Any effort put into better understanding your customer puts your product in a better position to stay relevant and competitive. Though you may have arrived at a set of customer profiles, the persona development process is never truly done. You’ll want to continually refine your understanding of customer needs over time because the needs, pains, gains, and jobs to be done by customers are never constant. Our product development teams prefer many of the continuous discovery habits practices outlined in Teresa Torres’ book and go directly to the source. 

It’s critical to continuously seek and capture feedback from your customer base with ongoing customer touchpoints. Through these frequent, ongoing customer conversations, you can have them rank their needs, pains, jobs, etc., and compare them with your persona profiles. Perhaps you’ll find that your understanding isn’t quite accurate—or that you missed something altogether. Or maybe a need that customers once had is no longer relevant. That’s the power of the data-driven persona development process: It allows you to start somewhere and adapt and evolve your personas to ensure that product and service development priorities align with validated customer needs.

How to create a persona might not be rocket science, but it does take time and effort, as well as a real commitment to the process in an ongoing manner. You need to put in the work by capturing that persona data and going through the paces of persona development by regularly validating your findings. Otherwise, you could find yourself making the most common product development mistake out there: building a product no one wants.

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.

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