Innovation is everywhere, and yet a lot of the time it really fails to hit the mark. Many will tell you that there is no rhyme nor reason to what is adopted and successful versus what is not.

But I disagree. I believe that at the heart of every great invention is a need. And behind the need is a living, breathing human. And the most disruptive innovations don’t just service one person’s need, they service many. 

There are many people involved in making innovation happen. For a company to get a new idea from conception to reality takes effort; to do it repetitively takes focus and commitment. There are a raft of internal stakeholders, from senior executives to middle managers to individual contributors, all of whom can play key roles in the journey.

With each of those stakeholders comes a different set of specific and unique challenges, such as how to manage risk whilst still being innovative, or many others of which I could write an entire article on! But there is one stakeholder more important than everyone else in the mix. The end user. Hands down. 

Who will be on the end of your innovation?

With every genesis moment, and as the seed of an idea comes to life, (especially from a technology perspective), there tends to be a lot of focus on the features and functions rather than the ‘who’ and the ‘how’.

Steve Jobs supposedly created Apple products without market testing (although this has never been 100% confirmed). His view was the user didn't know what they wanted until they had it... this of course is just one school of thought. Interestingly, a large group of designers and developers working together are building products for a target audience - them! 

I believe though, that if you’re developing out an idea, you need to have a human audience in mind and, at a minimum, you should have an idea about who they are and what matters to them. Otherwise whose problem are you solving? You need to know enough about the user to understand who they are and why they’d even care about what your innovation is going to deliver, the problem it’s going to solve.

You need to understand your audience to have a view on what technology they use or are even aware of, especially if you’re developing a technology experience for them. 

Do you have a person(a) in mind? 

Marketing and Design Thinking people spend time developing personas when they’re designing new marketing campaigns or products, and they’re a powerful tool that anyone involved in idea development should leverage. In fact, understanding who you’re dealing with through personas can provide a different way of thinking about your customer that anyone in the business world can and should leverage.

The retail and banking industries have well-developed personas that outline who their consumers are, at varying levels of detail. But many of the ‘personas’ that I’ve seen companies create are little more than a list of attributes that outline the things we believe matter rather than saying anything about who the person really is.

Technology and business projects have the concept of an end user or, from an agile perspective, ‘user stories’ that start to illustrate the things that happen when a user is working through the process. They focus on the end result though, so the thinking is more about the output rather than the input.

The answer? Create personas going into the process and use these as your yardstick for what you’re doing and why. 

The 3 cardinal rules for persona creation. 

1. Perspective

One of the most important things to always have in mind when creating a persona is perspective. This is not what you think, but how you think about it. Perspective allows you to see opportunities that you may not have previously recognised existed. I love this cartoon as it perfectly sums up what different perspectives can mean to you, depending on your situation. 

2. Think about the person not their attributes 

I’ve seen personas that outline a list of the things a role in an organisation cares about. For example, a CMO cares about, a CIO cares about... this assumes that every CMO or CIO thinks and acts in the same way. I’m not dismissing that the ‘cares’ are real but they’re not the sum total of the person. They also often align more to what we’d like to build or sell them that what they actually want. We need to consider their gender, their age, familial status, even their personal passions. That is going to help us understand their mindset and expectations far more effectively and thus enable us to consider their needs rather than ours. By focusing on their needs we can ensure that our product or idea actually has a chance of solving their challenge.

3. Empathy

Empathy is an expected societal construct, one we learn from an early age, and crucial to how we interact with each other on a day to day basis. It’s also one of the first things that is frequently overlooked in solution delivery. Navigating through a website to purchase something, taking out a loan with a bank, collaborating with colleagues and sharing our collective knowledge to help a customer; more often than not the focus is on the end game, not the journey we take to get there. If there is no empathy for the person navigating that journey we could be creating a less than satisfactory experience for them. 

A practical guide to creating a persona

Think about your process or product and the steps along the way from start to end. Who are the personas (both internal and external) that would buy, use, be impacted by your disruptive innovation? Flesh them out and create detail that starts to give you a sense of who they are and what matters to them.

Here’s a list of the questions I run through when I’m putting a persona together for an innovation workshop. 

  • Who are they? Give them a gender and a name. 
  • Irrespective of whether they represent an internal or external user, what type of role do they perform? Call centre agent, customer, decision maker? It’s good to have a view of where they sit in the journey. 
  • Are they university educated? Did they finish high school? The level of education someone has achieved will impact behaviour, especially when they’re being asked to provide personal information or sign up for things on a recurring basis. 
  • What are their political affiliations or personal interests? Are they conservative? More liberal? Will that change their expectations? 
  • Does your user commute? Do they prefer a certain type of technology over another? Could they use their commute time reading print media? What type? Or are they a mobile addict, playing a game or using their technology for work? 
  • What might they read or be interested in?  News preferences, fashion, technology, family, food? 
  • Are they married, single? If the latter do they date, use dating apps? 
  • Kids? How old are their kids? If their kids are teens how does this change the way they think about technology compared to having an older (or younger) family? 
  • How up-to-date are they with trends? If they’re older, are they less likely to be into technology, or is this just our orthodoxy? 

I also look at LinkedIn for profiles of people that typify the persona I’m creating. Note - the persona, not the person. What are the various pathways that like personas have taken to get to that position? Are there trends or common attributes that stand out? 

Think about your friends and family who may use this product or idea. What matters to them? Walk through the journey they undertake at the points they interact with your idea. What are the key steps, both obvious and perhaps less so. For example, steps that you may have no control over but which may an impact on usage.

And finally, I never consider my final version to be the finished product; the first exercise in any innovation workshop I run allows groups made up of diverse roles from the organisation I’m working with to review, disagree and change the persona to be more reflective of the people they interact with. Because after all, my views and the things I pull on when crafting a persona are just, well, my perspective.