Here at Leighton, we always like to get our clients thinking about their own business. Specifically, when a client comes to us looking for a complete web refresh, one of the first questions we ask them is; who are your customers?

You’d be surprised, when pressed, how little some employees know about their own customers.

Who actually is your customer?

I tend to ask this question at the project stakeholder UX Workshop day we hold for every new customer of ours. Usually we gather 10 or more key people together to help us discover more about our new customer, but more often than not, I tend to find we aren’t the only ones learning on that day.

Stakeholder attendees are usually made up of a broad range of staff members from many different departments in the business. All have a vested interest in the digital project, but they tend to have slightly different opinions on their customers. Often these key members of staff have worked there for a number of years (though in stark contrast we also meet a lot of people that are new to the company, often brought in to bring new life to the new digital project). It might be that these staff members are heavily involved online, but don’t have any physical contact with their customers at all. Alternatively we might discover staff members who aren’t involved in the day to day dealings of the online side of the business at all, yet they deal with non-digital customers every day.

Whatever their background, the question we ask them about their customers always provokes a great deal of debate and a vast amount of output.

You’ll have more than one type of customer

Everyone has a good idea who their average customer is, yet when you discuss it in a group environment you’d be surprised at how diverse Mr or Mrs Average customer can really be.

In reality, most organisations have more than one type of customer. Some have 5, some have 10 and some think they have over 20. This is where it becomes a real eye-opener for everyone involved when we ask them to help us create a persona set for their organisation.

At first, most stakeholders aren’t even aware what a persona is. Some will have heard the term mentioned before, but nobody really realises how useful they can be. For our customers, it soon becomes apparent how important they are. For us at Leighton, we consider them a vital part of any digital project.

Essentially, a persona set should be a true representation of all audience members that will use a website. It should cover off all the major user groups who will view the site and will therefore usually be made up of a range of external customers or suppliers and internal employees or volunteers.

An accurately completed persona set follows some in-depth research, both with the stakeholders present at the UX Workshop, but also with other members of staff within the business in the days and weeks following the kick-off session. Together we identify all key audience groups that make up the employees, customers and clients. We also use these sessions to identify any additional fringe audience segments, such as journalists, who might be after specific information from the website. We use research sessions with key staff, along with analytical data analysis, will enable us to identify any gaps and ensure we create a full spectrum of user personas for our customer.

The importance of accurate personas

Each persona should be specific to an individual even if the subject matter covers a broad demographic range. This can often cause sticking points amongst stakeholders who once involved in this process will identify their customers to the Nth degree. More often than not we find that customers will present us the findings of their own internal research and they have upwards of 25 customer types identified. The reality is that usually many of these customers are duplicated and they could in fact merge a great deal of these personas together. Usually this is because they are all actually trying to achieve the same result from the website as each other. So, whether they be an 80 year old lady pensioner, or a 35 year old married father of two, both customers are buying the same product. This, to us, is one persona.

It is vital that our customers end up with a sensible number of personas in the finished set as not only is this a more realistic representation of their customer base, but it also means we aren’t diluting the output too much to try and justify all of our design work, or user stories, against far too many personas. I know of some major brands that only have 6 – 10 personas, there is no reason that anybody should need 20.

To this extent, for each persona we will identify a single user and assign them a name, age, gender and user type. We’ll also assign them some background history to help our customers get a definitive idea who they are catering for at all times, by bringing them too life in their minds.

Each persona should give everyone a clear picture of the user’s expectations from the brand, the company and current website to help us identify what they want from the new online offering. We highlight some issues they have using the current digital offering as well as setting some goals that the new website should aim to surpass when it goes live.

Great persons = great business decisions

A comprehensive persona set not only allows our customers to reference any decisions taken during the project against a ‘real world’ sample, but it also helps them to explore and test added functionality against multiple user groups quickly and easily without having to commit to costly external user testing sessions. A decision or an extra piece of functionality is easier to justify if multiple personas ratify the decision – especially as the persona set is based on such thorough knowledge of their organisation.

A complete persona set not only allows us at Leighton to catalogue user stories for reference throughout the UX, design and development phase of a website build, but they will also have many benefits to our customers. They’ll help them in a wide range of areas, from evaluating any new features to ensuring the content for their site is written in the correct tone of voice.

In addition, such buy in on the process from all the stakeholder involved with the online project means the completed persona set can also be used within the business moving forwards, across all digital platforms, marketing campaigns and in house material.

One thing is for sure, if I asked the question ‘who are your customers?’ again at the end of the persona generation process, I’d get a very different answer than before.