How to Choose the Scope of Your Personas

Personas are not one size fits all. What I mean by that is that you can’t just create a set of general user archetypes to represent customers without first deciding what the personas are for and what their scope of influence should be.

What often happens in practice is that somebody, a stakeholder, a client, a product manager or an account manager will ask a UX practitioner to create personas without giving them any direction about the purpose or goal behind them. To those who aren’t well versed in how personas are created and how they influence work. This seems like a great idea. You’ll end up with one overarching set of personas that can be used for any project going forward. This seems fantastic because first of all, you get the most bang for your buck and secondly, your customers and users should be the same for any project you might undertake in the future. So the same persona should be relevant for everything, right? Well, unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like that. Personas can have broad or narrow scope, and the scope of the personas influences the data that will be in them. Think of a financial company, for example. Let’s say this company has multiple lines of business, retirement savings, banking and mutual fund investing. The company could have persona’s with broad scope, where they have one set of personas that represents the entire company’s customers across various business units. These personas are broad in scope because they influence a wide array of contexts, as in multiple areas of the business, with dozens of products and projects. On the other hand, they could also have personas with more narrow scope. So perhaps they create a set of personas to guide the redesign of a single product within a single line of business. So, for example, a mobile application for their banking business, these personas would have narrow focus because they would influence one project for one line of business. Now this is all important, but determining the scope for your persona should be based on an even more important question. The first question you should ask yourself is what are these personas for or what do I need them to help me do? After you’ve answered this question, then you can determine what the appropriate scope is for your personas. The reason is because scope impacts the richness of the insights in your resulting personas. So you’ll also need to understand the trade offs of creating both broad and narrow scope personas and how that influences their usefulness. Let’s look at the trade in detail. The broader the scope of the personas, the shallower the data supporting those personas. And on the other end of the spectrum, the more narrow the scope, the more rich the personas will be and actionable data needed for decision making. Within that targeted scope, success depends on matching the scope to the goal of your personas.

The reason that broad scope data is more shallow is because it’s really not realistic to find segments of customers with similar motivations, attitudes and behaviors across a broad array of situations and scenarios. People’s behaviors and needs are influenced dramatically by the context of the product or service in question. So sure, you can find similar segments of people across a large array of products and services, but you’ll need to use fewer and more general attributes to describe them. Broad scope personas might include high level data, such as the type of savings vehicles these users might be interested in their disposable income, their ability to save, and their level of existing knowledge about saving money. This type of general data helps you make high level decisions, such as deciding tone of marketing messages or determining the type of educational content needed by these segments. However, because the data is so broad and shallow, it won’t really be useful for targeted decision making within that large scope. So it wouldn’t be effective for designing a mobile banking application, for example.

On the other hand, with a narrow scope, there’s much less context to consider. So this allows you to find themes and users motivations, attitudes and behaviors as they relate directly to the context of the product or project in question. This type of information is what’s useful for making design decisions. So if your goal for the personas is to use them for the design of something specific, you need to have narrow scope personas that are based on that specific context. This way you have rich enough insights about that context to do so. You can’t effectively use large scope personas for that purpose because they won’t have the richness and data you need. So if you’re ever asked to create personas, set yourself up for success, set your stakeholders up for success. Success depends on matching the scope to the goal of your personas. Always ask what your stakeholders goal is. Consult with and educate them to help them understand what type of personas will help them achieve that goal.

Doing this will help you create the right tool for the job as well as ensuring all stake. Holders understand what they’re getting and not getting in return.

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