Design Product Management | 6 min read

Focus on the Job, Not the Customer

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Personas are a tool for sharing a common vision of a target user with everyone on a project. When everyone knows the sort of end users being targeted it helps cut out some unnecessary debates.

A persona depicts what you need to know about a typical end-user of your application to make informed design decisions. There are a few guidelines about how best to create, present and use them. The following are two important ones.

  1. No nonsense: Every sentence in a persona should have a design implication. For example, saying the user is 72, and often texts their nephews and nieces could imply that you might cater for diminished eyesight, low computer skills and consider outbound SMS messages.
  2. A shared creation: The client (or end recipient) has to be involved in both the research and analysis involved in creating them. Personas are the end result of a chunk of work. As Jared Spool once noted, they are similar to holiday postcards; they show evidence that a journey took place, but you can’t buy postcards and think you’ve been on holiday.

Personas work well when the userbase can be broken down into different types of users with different needs.

That’s not always the case.

Creating a Persona

Good Persona Matrix

One way to create personas is to plot the variance in meaningful attribute of users along scales and see how users cluster. In the above diagram each shade represents a different user, and I’ve use shades of green and red respectively to highlight the clusters. This implies two user types which you would then explore further. There is lots more going on behind the scenes here; this is only a whistlestop tour. Read “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” by Alan Cooper for actual details.

Personas can be meaningless

Bad Persona Matrix

If there are no key differentiators between all your users, you’ll end up with useless vague personas. 16-55, college-educated, good sense of humour, and other useless criteria. If everyone you know is described by a persona, you can rip that persona up. If it’s identical to the last ten personas your design agency has produced, then fire them. Good intuition beats bad data.

Bad personas happen because:

  1. Insufficient or poor research has been done.
  2. Personas are the wrong tool for the job.

When Personas Yield Nothing

Some products are better defined by the job they do than the customers they serve. For some products the customers come in all shapes and size, from all countries, all backgrounds, all salaries, all levels of computer skills. The only thing in common is the job they need done. In these cases it’s best to get an intimate understanding of the job itself, what creates demand for it, and what ultimately what you’d hire to do the job.

Clay Christenson speaks about this as job based marketing. He offers a masked example of a fast food chain looking to sell more milkshakes. Their initial approach was to study the users and make changes based on demographic analysis, customer analysis, pyschographic variables. This failed. They sold no extra milkshakes, as there was no meaningful insight to be found in analyzing the users themselves.

Clay suggested that they focus on the job that customers hire a milkshake to do. It certainly sounds weird (no-one thinks of “hiring a milkshake”) but switching to that perspective offered new insights.

It turns out more than half of the milkshakes are hired to do the job of providing sustenance and entertainment for a long commute. In this regard milkshakes were competing with bagels, bananas, and energy bars. The rest of their breakfast menu was never in play. Milkshakes had advantages over energy bars and bananas, as they’re tidier and easier to consume in a car. They beats bagels because bagels are too dry and leave you thirsty in your car. They beats coffee because they are more filling and don’t leave you desperate for a bathroom in the midst of a 40 minute drive. Once the chain realised this, they were able to make changes that made milkshakes the best tool for the job. Clay Christenson explains in this fascinating 4 minute clip.

Focusing on the job

Here are some common jobs thats have been around for a long time:

  1. Get a package from A to B with confidence, certainty and speed.
  2. Keep everyone up to date on a project they’re involved with.
  3. Get me face to face with my colleague who is in San Francisco.

Jobs can offer a long term view. Julius Caesar had to do the first job often, and he hired men and horses to solve it. Today we have FedEx. The job hasn’t changed.

This perspective can expose the real competitors. Email is the biggest competitor to project management software. People hire email many times a day to keep their colleagues in the loop.

Economy travel and business travel are both capable candidates applying for the third job, though they’re looking for significantly different salaries. Video conferencing isn’t as capable, but is willing to work for a far smaller salary, and he’s promising that he’ll improve over the coming years. I’ve a hiring choice to make.

When do you hire a web app?

There are a few different jobs you might like to do once you’ve taken a photograph. Here’s six:

  1. Capture this moment privately for me and her, so we can (hopefully) look back on it fondly in years to come
  2. Embarrass my friend in front of her friends, cause she’ll regret this in the morning.
  3. Get this file backed up online, so I can point others to it.
  4. Get a copy of this photo to my grandmother who doesn’t use computers.
  5. Make this look cool and interesting. Like me. And then share it.
  6. Get this edited and into my portfolio so that people consider hiring me for future engagements.

In this case the products you could hire are Facebook, Flickr, iPhoto, Instagram, maybe 500px. When you think about how many of these apps you use, you realise that the job is the distinction here, not you. You haven’t changed. There is naturally overlap between jobs; often a worker does extra tasks and works long hours in the hopes of a promotion.

Focusing on the job rather than the person helps highlight how features like red-eye reduction, multiple photo sizes, filter effects, camera information etc. are only useful for certain jobs.

Robert may well be a talented photographer with more cameras than a Las Vegas casino. But when he hires Facebook photos, quality isn’t his concern. People are.

Facebook photos are not about quality images. They do the job of instant sharing so that friends can see and laugh at what’s happening. Facebook would gain more from a speech bubble tool (to make embarrassment easier) than they would from from exquisitely preserving photo quality and camera details.

As Peter Drucker pointed out, the customer rarely buys what the business thinks it sells him. Sometimes the type of customer will define the job they need done. Sometimes the job itself is the only driving factor. It’s often hard to spot the difference. It reminds me a of Yeats poem.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

— “Among School Children” by William Butler Yeats.