Home Research Understanding Personas – An Interview with Alan Cooper

Understanding Personas – An Interview with Alan Cooper

Published on November 2, 2014 by in Research

Cascade SF hosted Alan Cooper for an interesting exchange of ideas and opinions about personas and goal-directed design. This was the first time I heard Alan speak and although I own two of his books The Inmates for Running the Asylum and About Face I am now a bigger fan. Alan’s no nonsense, matter of fact delivery is refreshing to experience. Below are my notes from the talk:

What are personas

  • Personas are goals and goals are personas, you discover personas the way you discover goals, personas are expressions of users goals, goals are embodied in people, goals are embodied in personas,
  • Persona is a vessel you fill with what you learned during field study
  • Personas are distilled from the field work about who the user is and what their desired end point is
  • Personas are like characters that actors play, great actors get inside the head of a character to find out their motivations and good personas allow you to get inside the customers head
  • Personas are not hypothetical
  • Personas are a tool used to express customer goals

Why use personas

  • In meeting you can point to persona and say this is what the customer ‘Mike’ wants, by focusing on customer it makes it easier for the audience to understand user needs
  • When customer needs are expressed in such a way it can transform stakeholders and team members into empathizing with the customers needs
  • If you selling product/service you need to listen to customers (customers tend to think in value  ‘I want more for my dollar’)
  • If you designing user behavior you need to listen and understand users
  • Interviewing competitors customers can reveal hidden insights and increase competitive advantage


What types of questions should an interviewer ask customers to gain insights

  • Do not ask yes / no questions
  • Do not ask leading questions
  • Do not say – would you like this feature
  • Instead say – tell me about your job, … what are you trying to accomplish, where you trying to go
    • Build rapport with customer/user by asking: did you have a good day today,
      • why did you have a good day
      • what made it a good day
      • what gives you a sense of satisfaction
    • After the interview (8 to 12 is optimal) look for:
      • common truths and idiosyncratic
      • common set of desired end-states
      • note patterns

How is the field work performed to create a persona

  • Get Out Of the Build (GOOB) and listen to customers; don’t tell them what to do, instead listen and observe
  • Use active listening… repeat back what you heard, for example ‘let me see if I understand what you said’
  • Ask questions like… ‘what is that like’, ‘when was the last thing you did it’
  • Remember interviewee that you are trying to learn how to improve X product/service and not them
  • Become an actor and listen for truth
    • make interviewee comfortable so they will open-up, explain that you want to become an actor and play them at a company meeting that will shape how your team will design the next best thing

So What – personas help design team

  • Understand what customers/users are trying to accomplish
  • Appreciate what the customer/user desired end state is
  • Empathize what motivates the customer/user
  • Know whose desires are foremost, which ones matter more
  • Provide sound rationale for design decisions and when comfortable by stakeholders that don’t value field study

Persona criticisms – personas are not statistically valid

  • Quantitative data (demographic data, etc.. ) helps you sell and market better product/service better, but won’t help you design it better
  • Quantitative research are about the averages and means, when design products and services we are not looking for statistical validity… we are looking for the truth on why people using your product/service.Quantitative data can not tell you the why
  • Statically speaking we have 1.7 parents and 2.3 children… is that true… when designing great products/services we trying to find out what makes people want to use the product/service

Parting words

You don’t have to listen to your customers/users if you are the first one to come out with iPod. Its a marvel not because it works well, its a marvel because it exist. But 6 months later your competitors will eat your lunch because they listened to your customers. So if you want to stay in business do field studies and listen and learn from customers.


Download my persona worksheet here to use on your next field study

Want more? Check out Alan’s talk below:


Written by  – The UX Acrobat

Follow Marc on Twitter: @MarcNiola

About UX Acrobat - Marc Niola

Marc is an expert UX professional with a focus on customer-centered design principles, social media, gamification and psychology. He has developed innovative business solutions for global corporations, SME, agencies, clients and brands.

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