Every year, products fail.

There are many different roads to failure. Solving non-existent problems, poor market segmentation, ineffective execution, or no commercial return will all put nails in coffins. While Google can afford to cull dozens of failures annually, our own CEOs are unlikely to allow too many launches chalked up to experience.

An unfortunately well-travelled road is deviation from our users’ true needs and wants. If we lose sight of who is using our product, we can’t determine their genuine desires. This leads to products which are well-crafted and elegant, but ultimately useless.

It’s natural to assume common ground between ourselves and our users. We spend so much time focused on our product that we become experts. Add a pinch of groupthink, sprinkle in a cognitive bias or two, and we start believing users behave in the same ways we do. That they will remember the setting buried three panels deep, study every metric on a dashboard, or care about the painstaking redesign of a seldom-used screen.

It’s our obligation to deeply empathise with the true wants and needs of whoever is logging into or switching on our products. Let’s get started.

So, how do we establish the “Who”?

Let’s bring on a new team member. Good news: she won’t need days off, a monthly paycheck, or even a desk! We’ll call her Jessica.

Jessica is a persona, representing a group of people who interact with your company. She will become a core part of your team. Expect her to hold court over meetings, solemnly watching your spirited discussions about how to best serve her. Let her guide your decisions, remind you of real users, and break ties, especially when your egos threaten to take over. And don’t forget that Jessica will evolve with you – persona definition is not an event, but a continuous process as more information is discovered and hypotheses refined. Creating real value is a Barkley, not a sprint.

For the sake of clarity, the below focuses solely on user personas (people clicking/typing into/holding your product). Especially in B2B, you will have many persona groups including buyers, managers, and other stakeholders within the business. Generic personas lose their usefulness, so you’ll need to split them out to reflect your context. All personas have critical importance to product managers, but their application is far broader. You should actively share them internally. Functions including Marketing, UX Design and Sales will jump at the chance to use this juicy information. Consistent personas across the business help with internal alignment and the consolidation of knowledge cross-functionally.

Personas are all about understanding context. A quick Google will give an exhaustive list of contextual factors to unpick and analyze to your heart’s content. Three of my favourites are below, framed in the context of building B2B HR Technology.

Understand your users’ daily lives

What does their day look like? When they clock-in, what’s on their to-do list? What must they achieve weekly, monthly, or yearly?

The tool of choice for a backroom data scientist perfecting a machine learning algorithm will differ dramatically from that of a hot-desking content marketer with 17 competing deadlines. Clearly, their favorite software will have different uses. However, they will also value different characteristics as their needs dictate. Spell Check will be a lifesaver for the stressed content marketer, whereas the data scientist probably cares more about built-in formulae and compilers.

HR professionals are busy and often bogged down with urgent requests from impatient hiring managers. Their days are full of trade-offs between tactical and strategic tasks, and juggling the urgent with the important. Tech is deeply embedded in processes, and so basic hygiene factors such as speed, automation, and uptime are make-or-break.

Understand how your users communicate

How do they show value in your product? What information do they need? Will they tell you when things go wrong?

You need to speak the language of your users, not expect them to speak yours. Take out jargon. Be succinct. Clearly articulate only what is useful. Your value is capped at how effectively you deliver it.

HR is a tough gig, often dealing with delicate and difficult situations, including hiring. There are role requirements to be met, team alignments to be predicted, and internal politics to be appeased. Information is, therefore, currency. A crystal-clear summary of outputs, combined with detailed interpretation and real-world application is gold for our users.

Understand the bigger picture

What does their boss and their boss’ boss care about? What pressures come from the business? What macro factors affect them—even if they aren’t aware of them?

Once you understand these, you can aim to create 11-star experiences and give your users what they need before they know they need it. First-rate product strategy to truly delight.

Historically, HR is a chronically underfunded function with disconnects between reported people strategy and resources to execute this strategy. This is especially salient with the scores of redundancies from COVID-19 and the resulting explosion in application volumes for open roles. On top of this, the pendulum has swung from one-stop-shop HR solutions to tailored best-of-breed (with booming investment to fill new niches). Thus, users are faced with increasing costs across more vendors, while their budgets shrink.

Once understood, vendors must help users to justify “yet another HR solution” to their CFO by adapting the offering. This can be achieved by baking in features to communicate value up the food chain, and help sponsors demonstrate internally which costs they can afford to cut.

Final thoughts

It is critical to understand the real people getting value from your product in their real lives. Work hard to find these people, distil your learnings, and shout your findings from the rooftops. Explicitly refer to personas whenever you are making decisions on their behalf. Honour thy users and keep thy personas holy. What will you name your Jessica?

Great templates to develop your personas can be found here, here, here and here.

About the Author

Richard Thwaite is an enthusiastic product guy, driven by helping people in their day-to-day lives. His experience across B2B and B2C product management have shaped his belief that companies of all sizes can deliver amazing value by listening to users and creating teams to meet their needs. He lives in the “Venn” - balancing user desires, business goals, and technical realities. His roles have taken him around the world, presenting in five counties to date and co-authoring a book. When not supporting product success, you'll find him on the golf course or training for the next half marathon.