The Squabble Over Personas: It Turns Out There are Enough for Everyone

Personas—you’ve probably got some.

They were developed by a team at your organization—carefully and deliberately. They were recently updated. They are memorable and nicely illustrated. Folks in the marketing department have used them to develop different pitches, but when it comes to your team writing them into design scenarios, you end up tearing your hair out.

Why are your organization’s personas so hard to use? It might be because they are marketing personas, based on the way customers buy what you produce—segments of the market divided up by the way each group tends to make a purchase decision. Maybe what you’re designing for isn’t the purchase process.

A problem many organizations run into is relying on only one set of personas. Personas can be derived from any sort of audience segment. There are many ways your organization might have divided the people it supports into segments.

There are marketing or buying segments, demographic segments, preference segments, and behavioral segments, to name but a few. Within each of these types of segments, your organization might take different perspectives, such as first-time buyer and return buyer.

Going Around in Circles

It’s hard to talk about personas in general, so take this example—an insurance company that sells auto and home insurance.

Here are the four personas the insurance company has updated recently.

Good Record Discount Seeker: Nora

I have had insurance with this company for 10 years, and I've been driving for over 20 years. I've only had one auto claim, where the fault was clearly not mine. My home is also insured with the same company, and likewise, I've filed no claims. I ought to be one of the people the company thinks is a “good bet.” As such, I want to pay less in premiums than other customers who don't have such good records as mine.

New Record, Poor Record: Victor

I've moved to this country for a three-year period at my company's offices here. I have a driving record from my home country, but it does not transfer. Here I must start anew, so I am looking to establish auto insurance without proof that I am a careful driver. Of all the things involved with moving to a different country, this little detail feels unwelcome and distrustful.

Elevated Risk Circumstances: Anja

I am on the road constantly as a part of my job. Since the company I work for prefers that I drive my own car, they subsidize my costs-including insurance. The company allows me to add high-mileage coverage to my policy, and pays the difference. Since I found out about additional coverage, I want to look into getting better coverage for my house, since it is located in a hazardous zone.

Extra Protection Seeker: Azat

I drive a good car and want to have everything taken care of, no arguing, if something happens to it. I also drive in other countries, when I travel for business. I want my insurance company to cover me in these places as well, since I am familiar with them and with the process of filing a claim. They can deal with the international paperwork. At home, I have a small art collection which I would like to be covered, as well.

These four personas represent the process of making a purchasing decision. If you are designing for the claim process, however, you run into trouble.

Say Anja is involved in a minor accident. She was waiting at a signal light on her way from one client site to another, when someone rear‐ended her. She suspects the other person was paying attention to a mobile device rather than the road. Anja wants the other person to learn a lesson from the incident, admit full blame and take on the burden of filing the claim. Anja doesn’t think she should have to spend any of her already‐busy days on paperwork.

You can think of a multitude of ways to support Anja’s scenario. It’s not until you move on to another persona, Nora, that you run into trouble.

An empty paint can fell off a workman’s truck on the freeway and hit Nora’s windshield, cracking it. Nora wants the workman to change his habit of driving off without securing whatever is in his truck. She is unable to convey this message to him on the freeway, so expects that the insurance company will instruct him to do so. The scenario is so similar to Anja’s that you wonder whether any differences in design are necessary. Yet, you have an underlying sense that there should be differences.

Behavioral Segments

Your team discusses the sense that there should be differences in the design. The feeling is based on a series of interviews you conducted with customers about filing claims. You spend a day combing through those interviews for behavioral patterns, and discover three different philosophies guiding how people approach filing a claim.

  1. Let This Be a Lesson

    If people are being careful, doing things according to guidelines, accidents should never happen. When an accident happens and the other person is at fault, I want to make sure that person becomes aware of the mistake he made so that he won't make it again and cause cost, extra work, and pain to yet another person. It's a “teachable moment”. It would be great if my insurance company would convey the message so that I don't have to risk him lashing out at me. Conversely, if I am at fault, I make a change to my habits which I enforce over the next few weeks until it becomes reflex. I never want my bad habits, whether in my driving or my home maintenance, to cause any sort of setback.
  2. Troubled About It

    I am afraid that this incident is going to cost me a lot-not only in terms of repairs, but also in terms of future insurance rates. I want to defend myself so that I am absolved of blame. I don't want people to think of me as guilty, nor high-risk in terms of insurance, because it wasn't my fault. I will work at proving myself right until the people at the insurance company trust me.
  3. Downplay It

    This is what insurance is for; it's not a big deal. Accidents happen, whether someone is to blame or whether it was an “act of nature”. I want the claim process to be quick. If the company asks for more and more documentation, pictures, and statements, then the process has gotten far too involved. I don't want to argue about who is to blame. Furthermore, because accidents happen, I expect my rates to remain the same. The insurance company ought to have done all the necessary calculations to ensure they can cover whatever will happen.

You don’t even have to attribute personas to the behavioral segments to see the difference they would make in your claim scenario.

The behavioral scenarios for both Anja and Nora would fall into the Let This Be a Lesson behavioral segment. Your design can support the nuances of this behavioral approach to filing a claim.

You can also think of clear claim scenarios for the other two behavioral segments. For example, perhaps Azat has an accident overseas for which he is not at fault. He expects the insurance company back home to deal with the whole problem. That kind of behavior falls under the Downplay It behavioral segment.

Combine and Focus

Regardless of which segment you are talking about—behavioral, demographic, preference etc.—one set of segments does not trump another. They mesh together. You can arrange two sets of segments in a matrix and choose which combinations are important to your business for the immediate future.

Studying which combinations are important is a great way to hone the focus of your design. For example, Nora’s behavioral scenario is a Good Record Discount Seeker + Let It Be a Lesson combination, which happens to represent over half the calls to customer service regarding claims. Supporting this combination effectively—to reduce calls and to make customers feel satisfied—is critical to the business.

A chart showing that the following combinations of segments are important to this insurance business: Good Record Discount Seeker + Let This Be a Lesson; New Record, Poor Record + Troubled About It; New Record, Poor Record + Downplay It; Elevated Risk Circumstances + Troubled About It; and Extra Protection Seeker +  Downplay It.

Conversely, the behavioral scenario applied to Anja, which is Elevated Risk Circumstances + Let This Be a Lesson, is not as common, and is therefore less important to the business for now. Later, when all the important combinations are addressed—and metrics prove that the business is benefitting—the team can begin to design for this second combination.

Different Casts of Characters

If you explore another aspect of what your customers are concerned with accomplishing—such as obtaining proof‐of‐insurance for a mortgage application—you may find different behavioral segments to the segments applicable to filing a claim. You can arrange the proof‐of‐insurance behavioral segments against the buying segments, and look at which combinations are most important to begin with. Make sure your business designs for all the important scenarios first.

The key is to recognize that there are different casts of characters involved with the various services your organization has to offer. Remind everyone across your organization that relying on one set of personas is misleading.

Author’s Note: This technique isn’t limited to designing products and services—it also applies to designing processes and writing content. It works for supporting people internal or external to your organization.

Indi's forthcoming book, Practical Empathy, will be released in 2014 and will coincide with a series of empathy workshops.

Indi Young

Indi Young

Indi Young is a freelance problem-space researcher and empathy coach in the technology world. She helps organizations understand the people they support as humans, not just as “users.” She was co-founder of the UX agency Adaptive Path. She has authored two books, Mental Models and Practical Empathy, posts as @indiyoung on Medium and Twitter, and does newsletters and posts via her website

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