Innovation is one of those concepts that we face everyday in different contexts and cases with many definitions. Most of the time, people and organizations put innovation as a value to be chased or as a final result: “I want to be an innovator”; “I want to have a revolutionary product”.

However, if I could offer a definition to innovation that I believe is more appropriated would be the ability to generate perceived value. By this, innovation would be the capability to design whatever we want for someone, or a group of people or even for the whole society in a more relevant and assertive way.

It represents, therefore, a human-centred process.

What I’m trying to say is that to be an innovator it is not about focusing on the final result. It is to be able to access latent human needs and translate them into something tangible, from a new product, services, or business to even solutions that change our cultural, social, politic, and economic patterns. Although we are capable of defining the scale of innovation to be created, when the start point is the people, the impact of this innovation increases exponentially.

In addition, if innovation is a process, it can be, therefore, systematized and put into practice by anyone who has learned it. Design, as a discipline and a field of study, has a form of thinking – Design Thinking. In its essence, Design – and the designers – before beginning to design a solution searches for a human understanding, what people speak, feel, see, hear and how they interact with others and the environment they are in.

Design is an experimental and empirical discipline that from practical experiences in the past decades has created a process – not necessarily a linear process – to understand and extract human needs and from that generate innovation.

In the end, what Design proposes is a focus shifting in the innovation field.

Design is encouraging people and organization to expand their mindset to not only search for quantitative information about their clients or users in order to innovate. No matter how much graphics, sheets, and tables are attractive and make us feel we are in control, quantitative data only provide the answers we want, but does not really reveal what clients want to say to you, as Marc Stickhorn and Jakob Schneider put in their book This is Service Design Thinking (2014, p. 142).

On the other hand, you can go out there and start to talk with your clients. For sure it will be an interesting experience and will provide you a new perspective about how to deliver innovation – perceived value – to someone. To be curious and venture driven is part of what takes to be a designer and express one of the Design’s values – experimentation.

But Design is not only a mindset. It gives the support needed to better address a problem and to comprehend our clients.

Design as a process – what common sense calls Design Thinking – has its phases and tools. My goal here is to give an overview about one of those tools and why from now on we are going to talk about how to build a Design Persona.

The Origin of Personas

Before going to the definition of Persona, I would like to tell you where this concept came from.

Although the word persona backs us to Ancient Greece, in terms of design and innovation it is a concept that came up in the 1980’s with Alan Cooper.

Cooper is a software designer, the father of Visual Basic, and in the last decades has been responsible for developing successful software interfaces. Since the beginning of his career, he noticed that engineers working method was faulty: all the software development wasn’t being designed for nonengineers.

Even though being part of a software industry, on thesis an innovation-oriented market, Cooper could see that companies were far away from delivering something valuable and simple to their clients.

In 1983, while developing an important project management program, Cooper took a simple but bold step: he decided to talk with 8 colleagues and acquaintances that could be potential clients of this software. Kathy, a woman with a traffic position in an advertising agency and with whom he had many opportunities to chat with, was his inspiration to create his first persona.

Cooper himself in his article The Origin of Personas affirms that after field research he used to make and remake dialogues in his head vaguely based on the conversations with Kathy and also used to act how a project manager like Kathy would use the software functions. It’s very interesting to see that with a simple exercise the software designer established a deeper and human connection with his clients’ needs and pains.

In the end, the program called Plan*It was a big commercial hit and later bought by Microsoft. Plan*It evolved to the software Project, the nowadays famous Microsoft program for project management.

Another interesting story told by Cooper happened in the 1990’s when he worked with a company called Sagent Technologies, a market leader at the time of what we know today as business intelligence software. In the first meetings with the 3 founders, when Cooper asked them examples of how their clients would use the Sagent program, all he got was how clients would use the software functions, for instance, how a client would create a spreadsheet and graphics, but not about what kind of problem the software could solve.

Because of that, Cooper asked Sagent to be introduced to some of their clients in potential. After interviewing half a dozen of them, the designer was able to identify 3 different groups of clients, based on how interactive and customized the program should be. From that Cooper came up with three personas: Chuck, Cynthia and Rob. That was the starting point to design three interface layers for the software.

The most interesting part is that when he took the 3 layers to a team meeting at Sagent, although he faced an initial resistance, the Sagent software developers – and also engineers – easily understood the design presented by Cooper and the reason behind its construction and effortlessly related with the archetypes created. Over time, it was possible to see those software developers getting into dialogues like: “What Cythia would think about this feature?”, “What Rob would do in this case?”, revealing that the personas created had a major adherence.

Nevertheless, the concept of persona was truly exposed to the public with Cooper’s book Inmates Are Running the Asylum published in 1998. More than an attempt to write a book about how to build a persona, Cooper wanted with this publication to send an alert to managers about the problems to develop software to non-engineers.

After all, what is a Persona?

We have seen that when we are trying to understand our clients and their needs, it is fundamental to talk with them. That’s right. As said, design work is exploratory and demands field research. After gathering an amount of information, it’s possible to identify behavior and needs patterns, as well as to obtain a new perspective on the problem we want to solve. Having these data we are capable to build what we are calling as Persona.

According to Stickdorn and Schneider, personas “are fictional profiles that are many times construe in a manner to represent a specific group of people based on common interests. They represent a ‘character’ with whom the design and the client teams can engage”.

That’s a definition I consider particularly interesting because of 2 major points when we are building a persona:

  1. Help us to synthesize what was observed and gathered during the research, highlighting the most important characteristics, feeling, and behaviors.
  2. Because the result is a character, it allows us to create a true connection with our client so that the possibilities of solution get clearer.

Another definition that may be even richer is offered by Erika Hall, in her book Just Enough User Research who defines a design persona as an archetype of a fictional user created by design researchers based on the data gathered in the field and says that design personas are useful because allow designers to always defend users interests and be actively empathic and human centred.

Erika’s vision stands out an important point and a very common mistake when we are talking about persona: to use information that did not come from field research but from researchers’ ideas and preconceptions. Well-build personas cannot carry biased presumptions. They have to be formed by exhausting research.

Classifying Personas

Persona is not a concept created and only used by designers. Many other disciplines have their own concept and that’s why we are here exploring and emphasizing the Design Persona concept. Because we trying to highlight the reason design persona is a starting point to innovation.

If we take Marketing discipline, we can see marketers day in day out grouping and categorizing clients according to their profiles and creating characters that can express each profile group.

However, we can see as well that in general marketers only consider their clients’ demographic data (such as age, location, annual income), consumption behaviors and personal records (education, marriage status, professional experiences, etc).

With such data at our disposal, we can sure create a profile or a fictional character or even imagine how this character is in real life. But, we wouldn’t be even close to identifying what this persona really thinks, feels and wants.

That’s why we build a Design Persona. Because we are in search for behavior patterns and trying to understand why, how and when clients interact with a product, a service or, in a wider perspective, with a problem that we are investigating. The purpose with a Design Persona is to figure out our client’s pains and motivations when he or she is interacting with our business and what are the most common situations he or she experiences when having such pains and motivations.

How to know if I have a well-built Persona on hands?

Probably your experience can guide you through this, but if you want a checklist of the main criteria to be considered, you will find it below:

  • Personas are a reflection of observed patterns
  • Personas must represent the present not what people will want
  • Personas do not speak for the ideal
  • Personas indicate possible paths to a solution
  • Personas help a team to understand:
    • clients context;
    • what are the client main behaviors, attitudes, and needs;
    • the paint points and challenges
    • clients’ goals and motivations

Our recommendation is that this analysis is made in a group so you can use plural opinions to validate those points, what is working and what should be improved.

The advantages of building a Design Persona

We have explored one of the main reasons to build a Design Persona, which is to access human behavior, attitudes, barriers, and gains. Another reason that I highly value Design Personas is that when it is incorporated into a process in a company and become part of the culture, the company will be prepared to all the changes in behaviors and needs and to redesign its products, services, process or even the entire business model. As a result, the company will be able to continue to generate perceived value, i. e., innovation.

Another reason I couldn’t leave behind is that using Design personas the decisions criteria will always be based on what people want or need, saving unnecessary energy and resources or from getting into never-ending discussions about what feature or task should be done first.

That’s the kind of unfair advantage that every company seeks, but only a few turn it in a continuous process.

How we do it

I’m glad you are still with me because I’m about to give an example of how we build a (Design) Persona at Echos. To do so, I would like to tell you about our last experience in an innovation project.

We have been working since February of 2017 together with the Brazilian Private Health Care Agency in an innovation project with the purpose of solving the following problem:

How might we rethink the payment model in private Healthcare System in Brazil?

Starting from this challenge, our main goal was to redesign the foundations of the Private Healthcare System compensation model in order to provide better quality services and a full information transparency to suppress corruption and makes the system more accessible to all stakeholders, especially to the patient.

As happens in every design project, it was necessary to build the guiding premises of the project what was done reuniting all the stakeholders in a co-creative workshop.

Established the premises, our consultant team applied design principles to understand in depth the problem. This moment is what we call Understanding Phase in the design thinking process.

Surpassing the first phase, the team head to the Observation phase, a moment to gather the maximum of information. So they started doing desk research, including visiting web sites and market trends in the healthcare sector. After that got the moment to interview healthcare authorities from each group of stakeholders. Our team talked with hospitals, laboratories, doctors, patients and other professionals part of the healthcare system.

The consultants also used a very interesting exercise called “analogous scenarios”, which means to investigate a very different context or situation but with similar characteristics in order to have new perspective and insights. And that’s why the team interviewed members of the National Agency of Civil Aviation.

After the research period, the consultant team started to map the behavioral and attitudinal patterns from every stakeholder. They used a very useful tool that we call Empathy Map to each stakeholder to have clear what were the pain and need points.

After that and with the Empathy Map on hands the consultants, as you will see below, got to 8 personas: 4 of them were embodying 4 different types of patient; 1 of them represented a doctor; 1 of them, the health care providers; 1 of them, a government agent; and 1 of them, a human resources professional.

Our final board of personas

How can you innovate: build your own persona(s)

So you can put your hands on and start to practice all that we have discussed here, I would like to offer you an excellent and free guide. You will find in our mini Design Thinking toolkit not only the Empathy or Persona Map but all the explanation about what is design thinking and its phases, so you can start to innovate right away!

You can download it here:

Paulo Tiroli

Paulo is a former lawyer and now a passionate marketer but has always been an adventurer. He has noticed that we waste a lot of time trying to fit in other people’s mold, instead of try to find our own path. And that’s why his personal mission is to help people to find their own way. He is involved with many entrepreneurship movements and believes that design combined with business is a powerful tool to create new realities. Nowadays, he is part of Echos’ team and his dream is to make marketing a human-centered approach.

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