Big Lots CEO Is Enamored With Jennifer, a Persona

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published a blog post: Why One Lady Was Mentioned 25 Times on an Earnings Call. The title of the article caught my attention. What makes Jennifer such an important customer to retail store chain Big Lots that CEO David Campisi would mention her so many times on a single earnings call?

Well, it turns out that Jennifer is not really a customer. She’s not even a real person, she’s a design persona, an archetype that is representative of a key customer segment. Here’s why Campisi believes in using a design persona (Jennifer):

“I am confident in developing a new mentality to focus on her and all facets of our business will pay off and begin to drive positive comps over time.”

My take: Good for Campisi! One of our 10 CX Mistakes to Avoid is Treating All Customers the Same. Organizations need to identify key customer segments and design experiences to meet their specific needs. But it’s not easy to get an entire organization to share a common understanding of a customer segment.

That’s where design personas come in. As you can see in the sample document below, a design persona is a vivid description of a prototypical customer (or archetype) within a segment.


Good design personas share these characteristics:

  • Represent a key customer segment. It’s not a random description, it actually represents the core characteristics of a segment.
  • Are based on research. The elements of a design persona aren’t just imagined, they come from solid research, often requiring qualitative or ethnographic studies.
  • Create a vivid description. The artifacts for a design persona should create a crisp picture of a person that is so compelling that people think they know him or her.
  • Provide information for decision making. It’s not good enough to know generic information about a customer segment, design personas must include key information about that person’s needs and requirements for interacting with your company.
  • Are widely used. Design personas create value when they’re put to use, so it’s important to get different groups across the organization to embrace them. It’s a good sign when the CEO is referring to one of the personas by name.

The bottom line: Use design personas to meet customer needs

Words Of Wisdom: Stanley Marcus On Customers As People

Stanley Marcus, who was president and chairman of the board of Neiman Marcus, was quoted as saying:

Consumers are statistics. Customers are people.

I think he was telling us that great experiences need to accomodate the specific needs, wants, and aspirations of individuals — who just happen to also be customers.

My take: Unfortunately, many companies don’t seem to understand this concept. I often find that firms either lack any real understanding of their customers or they rely almost completely on analyses of their data warehouses. That’s why I often find myself telling clients…

Your customers don’t live in spreadsheets; you need to go out and talk to them to understand who they are as people. That is, of course, unless each of your customers is really a 55% female with 2.3 kids who is 48% from a suburb and is 11% hispanic.”

It’s not that analytics are bad (they’re actually quite helpful), but they don’t provide enough of an understanding of “people” to design and deliver great experiences. That’s why companies should use design personas — as I discussed in my previous post called “Get To Know You Customers Persona-lly

In order to get a sense of what we mean by a design persona, here is a an example from WHITTMANHART that was shown in an excellent Forrester research report called Best And Worst Of Personas, 2007 by Moira Dorsey (Note: This is only a partial view of the persona).




WHITTMANHART Persona Example

WHITTMANHART Persona Example

The bottom line: Experiences need to satisfy individual people, not consumers.


Get To Know Your Customers Persona-lly

In a recent post, I mentioned a common affliction of many companies — self-centeredness. One of the best ways to beat this problem is with the use of design personas. At Forrester, we’ve published a long stream of research on the topic of design personas that goes back several years (sorry, but the full research is only available to Forrester clients). In a report that we wrote in 2003 — Executive Q&A: Design Personas — we defined design personas as:

A composite description of a real person who represents a primary customer segment. These descriptions contain detailed information on the motivations, goals, and preferences of a representative customer.

Why are design personas valuable?
Design personas help companies make informed, fast design decisions. By creating a shared, vivid picture of target customers’ behaviors, project teams can better evaluate how to satisfy customer needs. The impact: less scope creep from unwanted and unnecessary features, faster consensus across the team, and none of the pitfalls from self-referential design.

How do they work?
Let’s say that one of your design personas is named “Jill Morgan.” The discussions in your company would change from “I want this” and “I like that” to “what do you think Jill would want?” In this way, design personas push companies to shift their focus from inside-out to outside-in.

There are three key pieces to a good persona:

  1. Primary research. Valid personas don’t come out of the blue. They emerge from user research — often requiring ethnographic techniques (sorry, but spreadsheets and data warehouses do not provide enough information about your customers).
  2. Compelling documentation. The research needs to come to life in documents (sometimes online) that help people feel like they “know” the persona.
  3. Active usage. Design personas should be incorporated within decision making processes — from initial funding requests through detailed design tradeoffs.

If you’re interested in knowing more about design personas (and I think you should be), then read several of Moira Dorsey’s recent reports:

The bottom line: Now that you know about personas, there’s no excuse for self-centeredness!

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