Look in the Corners to Unmask Quiet Personas

Last Friday Steve Johnson of Pragmatic Marketing presented a great webinar, “The Role of Strategic Product Management.” (If you didn’t have a chance to attend, view it online here.)

While the webinar was occurring, the #prodmgmt community on Twitter was all a flutter with discussion. At one point during the webinar, Steve spent time discussing the role of personas, and there was a great post that encapsulated the overriding message by @barsmith, who tweeted “Create product marketing for buyer personas; develop product for user personas. Important differentiation!”

I wrote a post last week about Personas (Are You Putting Personas on a Shelf?) I have passion around personas and the benefit that they deliver in product management and marketing. So, you can imagine that Steve’s mention followed by @barsmith’s tweet had my interest.

But, then, I realized, that when we look at personas we have been overlooking one important audience. Product managers are taught to look at personas as a way to understand the development needs – find what the problems are by the market, develop the personas so you can use them to help design your build. (I know it’s a basic, in-a-nutshell definition here, but this isn’t the point.) Product marketing looks at personas as a way to understand their buyers and their process – understand their process well enough you can anticipate their needs as they move through the buying cycle reaching the obvious conclusion that they want, no need, your product – and buy it.

But, are we overlooking another dimension to the personas? I think we all might be.

What about the end-user who doesn’t get a voice? The one who is hiding.

Several years ago I was in a company building a product for the recruiting market in HR. We, as a team, talked with HR professionals of all levels and talked with the buyers, at all levels. But, when the product was installed at the clients’ sites, we often found a quiet group of users – lurking behind the cube walls in the corners – who had not been consulted. This group was very dangerous to find at this point in the game. Why? Because they could literally sabotage the success of the product at the client site. If this group didn’t use the product as they were trained or, if they didn’t use it all; they could prove that the product was a failure.

Why wouldn’t they use it? It answered all their problems! Well, in a way. Yes, the product was designed to help them, but they were not included in the discussions. While they were represented as a voice in the development, so we could look at what features were important; we didn’t look at their usage. They felt using the product actually threatened their jobs. So, while we were talking to the buyers who understand everything, this quiet group sat in the background and when the time came – simply didn’t change their methods in how they did their job. The product was doomed to fail.

(I’d like to say that because of our skills we caught this problem in time, but it was sheer luck that brought it to our attention in time. We corrected our materials and approach and had the success we had planned.)

But, it makes me wonder, looking in from the outside – do you really include ALL the end users when you look at the personas you are developing? Personas need to represent everyone that interacts with the product, even when they may not speak up to be found.  Don’t overlook the corners! Find those who are hiding and take the masks off!

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