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Seann Hicks

Agile Scientist and Software Developer

Personas and User Stories

Meaningful and relevant user personas are critical to writing good user stories. In this post I present some strategies to create good personas.

Seann Hicks

5 minute read

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Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

Personas

User stories written using the Connextra format (As a , I want , So that ) are meant to put focus on the customer, the user of the product. The first segment of a User Story, the, [As a ], sets the context of our customer. Who we think wants or needs this feature. The more the user persona is understood, the better chance the feature has of actually being useful, or desirable to that user.

Personas are a well used and understood approach in marketing to model a customer audience. As we’ll see personas are key to writing good User Stories.

There are a wide array of definitions for persona, but I like this one from lexico.com:

The aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others.

The aspect of someone’s character! This goes deep into who they are and how they make decisions. A great product thinker understands customer needs. Just asking customers what they want doesn’t go deep enough. They either don’t really know, or just want a better version of what they have. A faster horse, according to Henry Ford. Customers also don’t really know what’s possible with technology.

People’s personalities are multi-faceted and complex. it is impossible to capture the essence of a person with a few sentences. But for marketing and User Story writing we don’t really need that much detail. Personas are written to help us empathize with customers. They help us imagine what it would be like to be in their place. What sorts of problems do they face, what are their goals, passions and dreams?

As a User

If you have started writing User Stories and you haven’t developed and gone into depth on your customer personas, please pause the story writing. No more “As a User” stories please. Spend a week to get your personas nailed down (or at least your initial personas).

Understanding your audience has never been more important in tech. The age of mass marketing is over. The web has fragmented audiences, and this includes user audiences. For example, every new generation of teenager is looking for a social media platform to call their own. Even if an existing platform does everything they need, they will reject it because it is missing this cultural element, the, I belong in the club of my peers factor.

One size does not fit all. User adoption is the biggest threat to your project.

You’re creating tension by telling stories. You’re serving a specific market. You’re expecting something to happen because of your arrival. What? (Seth Godin, 2018)

You’re building something that will change how your users do things. But do they want it?

My guess is you don’t understand your customers. They probably don’t really understand themselves. But that’s ok, that is what agile is all about. Make assumptions about the user personas and validate them quickly with something simple that just might work for them. Then measure it, qualitatively and quantitatively. Gather user metrics. Do people use your new feature? What are they saying about it?

Update your user personas with this new information.

Names and Photos

I recommend finding some real users and creating personas based on them. Use their names in you stories.

As Satish the Operations Analyst

I want a progress bar, or some indication that the system has received my request

So that I don’t press the submit button repeatedly in frustration and send duplicate requests

Ask if you can use a picture of them to paste into your persona. Create cards for your user personas and place them on your project home page. Print them and stick them on your User Story Map.

User Persona Card

If you don’t have a real person to help you generate a persona, contrive one. Maybe you don’t have a user audience yet. Find a picture on unsplash and use that for your photo. Make up a name.

But as soon as you have real users, add them as personas.

Audience

Understanding your audience is critical to prompt innovation about your product. Who is it for? I put this challenge out to Product Owners out there; Why would your audience use your product, and why might they not use it. How are you going to cross the chasm?

A Structured survey is a great way to build a set of personas and get deeper insights. Attach the survey results to your persona cards. Make sure your questions are open ended (avoid yes/no questions). This will encourage creative thinking and issues you may not have considered.

Persona Survey:

  • What does a good day look like?
  • What does a bad day look like?
  • List examples of products that you’ve bought and never used
  • List examples of products that have disappointed, why?
  • What does easy to use mean for you?
  • What does frustrating to use look like?

Summary

Don’t gloss over the user persona in your stories. User adoption of your product is going to be your biggest challenge, and you are making a lot of assumptions about your users, so the more you understand them the more likely your assumptions will be correct. Understanding customer challenges drives creative thinking and solutions. Time spent defining your user personas is well worth the investment.

  • Use real people for your personas if you can
  • Create contrived personas if you don’t have real customers
  • Refine your personas over time as you learn more about them
  • Survey your customers and feed the results into your personas
  • Stop creating stories that start with “As a User”

Sources Cited

  • “This is Marketing”, Seth Godin, Penguin Random House LLC, 2018
  • “Crossing the Chasm”, Geoffery A. Moore, Harper Business a division of Harper Collins, 1999

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I believe Agile Iteration is about validating assumptions and optimizing to meet business goals.