From Personas to Stories: Creating Better Tools for Design and Marketing

Design ethnography takes the position than human behavior and the ways in which people construct meaning of their lives are contextually mitigated, highly variable and culturally specific. on the central premise of ethnography is that it assumes that we must first discover what people actually do and why they do it before we can assign to their actions and behaviors to design changes or innovation. The ultimate goal is to uncover pertinent insights about a population’s experience and translate their actions, goals, worldview and perspectives as they directly relate to a brand, object or activity, and the role that these pieces play with regards to interactions with their environment. Often, the information results in a large-scale, broad document, but it also often results in the development of personas.

The idea is that personas bring customer research to life and make it actionable, ensuring the right decisions are made by a design or marketing team based on the right information. The approach to persona development typically draws from both quantitative and qualitative tools and methodologies, but because of the very personal nature of ethnography, the methodology often leads the charge. The use of ethnographic research helps the creation of a number of archetype (fictions, in the most positive sense) that can be used to develop products that deliver positive user experiences. They personalize the information and allow designers and marketers to think about creating around specific individuals.

But there are problems with personas. Don’t get me wrong, I believe personas can be useful and help design teams. But I also believe they can reduce the human condition to a series of attributes and lose the spirit of what personas are designed to do. First, in terms of scientific logic, because personas are fictional, they have no clear relationship to real customers and therefore cannot be considered scientific. So much for the science.

For practical implementation, personas often distance a team from engagement with real users and their needs by reducing them to a series of parts. The personas, then, do the opposite of what they are intended to, forcing design teams down a path that gives the illusion of user-centricity while actually reflecting the interpretations or the individual designers. Creating hypothetical users with real names, stories and personalities may seem unserious and whimsical to some teams within an organization and be, consequently, dismissed as so much fluff. But by far, the biggest problem, at least to my way of seeing things, is that while we want to use personas to humanize potential customers and users, we in fact reduce them to objects and a laundry list of actions, personality quirks and minimalist descriptions.

I’m not advocating the dismissal of personas, but I am suggesting that perhaps there are alternatives. One place to start is to admit we are writing fiction when we construct these tools and expand upon that notion. We should be adding to the mix humanistic narratives. Customer novellas, so to speak. It requires more time and effort, both on the part of the person/people creating them as well as those using them, but it also gives greater depth and insight into the needs, beliefs and practices of the people for whom we design and to whom we market. Rather than relying exclusively on a dry report or a poster with a list of attributes.  In this model, the idea is to create a short story in which actors (the eventual personas) engage with each other, a wider range of people, and a range of contexts. Doing so allows us to see interactions and situations that lead to greater insights. It allows us to look at symbolic and functional relationships and tease out elements that get at the heart of the fictional characters we create.

Why is that important? Because it does precisely what personas are meant to do but typically fail at – provide depth and characterization, establish a sense of personal connection between designers and users and provide breakthrough insight and inspiration. Anyone who has read history vs. historical novels is familiar with the idea. It is easy to reduce Julius Caesar to a series of exploits and personality traits, but in doing so we lose the feel for who the man was. A historical novel, in contrast, adds flavor by injecting conversation, feelings, motivations and interactions. We walk away with a feeling for who he was and what affect he had on others, good and bad.

Imagine developing a persona for Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. We could say the following and attribute it to all Hobbits: Frodo is enamored by adventure but frightened by it. He loves mushrooms, has no wife, is extremely loyal to his friends and will work at any task he is given until it is done, regardless of the difficulty or potential for personal harm. He disdains shoes and has a love of waist coats.

There’s nothing wrong with this description, but for anyone who had read the trilogy or even seen the movies, the shortcomings are obvious. We miss the bulk of Frodo’s personality. In exploring the novel, we come to develop a rich understanding of Frodo, a deep understanding of his motivations and personality and his relationship with other members of the party, including the Ring.

For the literalists out there, I am not suggesting we create anything as vast as a novel, particularly one as expansive as The Lord of the Rings, but I am suggesting that we move beyond attributes and create stories that more fully develop the people behind the personas. Several pages of engaging writing is sufficient. Not only does it provide deeper insights, but it engages the reader more fully, inspiring them to go beyond the “data” and explore a wider array of design, brand and marketing options. Again, it isn’t meant to replace personas (or the research report), but to add to it. It requires more effort and time on the part of the person creating it as well as the person consuming it, something people are often disinclined to do, but the end result is better design, greater innovation and a more complete vision of what could be.

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Co-Creation and Managing What Matters

Co-creation has become a central theme for brands and innovators over the last decade, and rightfully so. The idea of collaboration in a postmodern world where information and opinions reach millions in the blink of an eye is a necessity. But what do we mean when we talk about co-creation and is it the panacea it’s made out to be?

Co-creation views products, brands and markets as forums for companies and customers to share, combine and renew each other’s resources and capabilities.  This creates value through new forms of interaction, service and learning mechanisms. In other words, it ideally establishes a dialog between all actors involved in the company’s offerings.  Co-creation is about collaboration. It’s about working together to solve problems, uniting a range of perspectives and approaches to an issue. Very often this collaboration involves consumers working directly with professionals from inside and outside a client organization, to define and create a range of outputs, from strategy to communications, from products to experiences.

Value is co-created with customers if and when a customer is able to personalize his or her experience using a firm’s brand promise and product/service proposition to a level that is best suited to get his or her tasks done or need fulfilled. This, in turn, allows the company to derive greater value from its product-service investment in the form of new knowledge, higher profitability and/or increased brand loyalty.  The interaction established through co-creation produces a sort of community where the company and the user/buyer engage in an ongoing, continuously evolving relationship, defined by and defining a shared set of actions and beliefs.

A key element in all of this is the notion of personalization on the part of the customer.  But what does personalization mean? Personalization is about the customer becoming a co-creator of the content of their experiences.  This doesn’t mean providing products and content that can then be tweaked to meet their needs, because that is still largely a passive process – the company makes it, the consumer buys it and then reconstructs it in something of a vacuum. There is no feedback loop.  In a true co-creation model, customers and actors inside the company are taking active roles in developing and sharing new ideas. Competencies of the consumer and stakeholders within the company come to interact and harness a range of ideas, functional and symbolic.

This is done along four axes: engage in dialogue with customers, mobilize communities, manage customer diversity and co-create experiences with customers. Ultimately, the goal is to leverage customers for a shared creative experience, going beyond insights and creating a constant interaction that produces brand experiences and better products and services. The increase in the number of collaborators and the numerous interactions among them, across each stage of development, leads to products and services that better meet customer needs.  We see a greater diversity of individuals, functions across organizations and stakeholders across the product/service/brand ecosystem getting involved.

While I am a proponent of co-creation, there are problems with a co-creative model. A customer who believes he or she has the expertise and chooses to co-produce may be more likely to make self-attributions for success and failure than a customer who lacks the expertise. A customer who lacks the expertise but feels forced to co-produce may make more negative attributions about co-production. The dialog can backfire.

The second pitfall is that co-creation assumes customers can readily articulate what they want and need. Customers take on roles, which means what they tell the stakeholders inside the organization may not reflect anything more than a whim. Think of cars with 17 cup holders and fins a mile high. What we can articulate is often a manifestation of something else, something we can’t articulate well, which may lead to creating the absurd. Rather than taking suggestions at face value, ideas need to be analyzed through the lens of detachment and we need to tease out meaning and innovation from the unsaid as well as the said.

Finally, co-creation often assumes a fixed identity for the customer, meaning that the person with whom we’re working and the person for whom we’re building changes according to context. If the co-creating customer is in the role of “mom” in one instance, she may be in the role of “artist” later in the day. The dramaturgical shift in identity will shape what he or she says and does as it relates to a brand, product or service at any given point in time. So even though the idea is well developed and well thought out in the co-creation process, whether that be an ideation session or an online forum, it may have little relevance once that stage is abandoned and the customer moves on with the rest of his or her day.

Co-creation can help break the yo-yo effect of research and development, where clients go back and forward between creative agencies, research agencies and their audience. By working with your consumers, rather than directing stuff at them, companies get a real sense of what works and what doesn’t as the ideation takes place. But it is not without risk. As co-creation becomes a mainstay at companies, we will need to figure out how to keep a diverse set of participants engaged, how to share the risks and value of innovation, how to manage the complexity of the system without laying out too many constraints. We will need to learn how to tease out what is actually needed and what are simply flights of fancy. We will need to learn to balance the said and the unsaid. But in the end, the payoffs can and will be tremendous.