Everyone involved in digital product development will acknowledge that knowing who we are trying to serve with our product, services, and features, is an essential element in product development. This is as true for developing a new product as it is for developing additional features to existing products.
Knowing exactly for whom a new service is intended is essential to make it fit with the user’s specific needs. This is key to ensure that our product solves an actual problem for the user, and hence delivers real value for the user. This is common sense for anyone involved in developing digital solutions.
Over the past couple of years, I have come across various organizations — ranging from smaller start-ups to larger corporates — who have not articulated who their core users actually are, and how their products accommodates their different users’ needs.
What do I mean by articulated? I mean, that descriptions of the users are actually expressed somewhow in a written or otherwise shareable format — could be video, presentations, or the like.
Describing your core users is arguably valuable — maybe even essential — yet, why is a basic tool like describing user types (or personas) missing in many organizations?
In this article, I will address some of the pitfalls, and look at what to do and how to make user types actionable.
Most companies do segment their customer base one way or another. However, the way the segmentation is done is often not very helpful from a product development perspective. I’ll elaborate later…
In order to understand what needs to be done, let’s uncover the various ways of segmenting — or perspectives for segmenting.
The reason for clarifying these different ways of segmenting is that it might hold the answer to why you are not yet successfully using ‘personas’ or ‘user archetypes’ as part of product development in your organization.
Because, you are most likely already talking about your users — and maybe even have defined a segment of users to target — only, the way these segments are described doesn’t inform any design or product decisions — simply because they ‘inform’ on a different level than what is useful in product development.
Segmenting can crudely be categorized into three different buckets or perspectives:
These three different ways of segmenting are not mutually exclusive, and none of them are ‘wrong’, they are just different ways through which you can understand your business — different ‘lenses’ you might say.
Strategic segmentation is a ‘business view’ on your users — or business. This is where your business people have categories your users according to various business metrics, in order to identify where you are making your money, where you have room to grow your business, etc.
As an example, your business might have identified a core segment being your ‘high volume’, ‘high spenders’, which might be defined as customers who have purchased more than X products and spend more than Y dollars over a given time period.
Also, you can have the opposite. You might have a tail of freebie users or ‘low spenders’, who are using your product but contribute very little in terms of revenue.
Examples of strategic or business segmentation include:
This way of segmenting users makes a lot of sense from a business perspective and can be a great way to identify new revenue streams — e.g., by converting freemium into premium users or making high-volume users more profitable. This might provide ideas to new features and inform future spins on your value proposition.
However, in many cases this business-oriented way of segmenting is not very actionable from a product perspective. It might be a guiding star in terms of business strategy, and hence also impact your product strategy, but what to actually build and prioritize for whom, is still very unclear. When this is unclear, we run the risk of building something that does not fit with actual user needs and hence we risk wasting time and effort.
In tactical segmentation, we are moving towards user needs — but we aren’t quite there yet.
Here, we are talking about demographics, behaviors, and other characteristics. It is the ‘messy middle’ as many different perspectives on the business and customer base arises here — and often both outside-in and inside-out views.
Examples of tactical segmentation include:
Tactical segmentation serves very well in terms of positioning — i.e., which users are you targeting from a marketing point of view. Maybe you are focussing on ‘young people’, or ‘families’. This makes sense, as your product might be offering something specifically for these types of users, and this is where you have an edge to competitors.
This way of segmenting is often used to drive traffic to your product, and resonates very well with how marketers segment their users to drive traffic via search, social, retargeting, etc.
From marketing, product, or sales perspective you might also have segmented your users based on current products purchased/used or use of channel/device. Examples could be ‘app users’ and ‘web users’, or ‘single device users’ and ‘omnichannel users’. This tends to end up as more of an ‘inside-out’ exercise where the company prescribes how it would like its customers to use and consume products and services, rather than what the actual needs of the users are.
Often the tactical segments cut across the segments identified in the strategic segmentation. As an example, your product might target ‘young people’ as a tactical segment, but from a strategic perspective ‘young people’ can be both ‘freemium’, ‘premium’, ‘high-spenders’, ‘low-spenders’.
Narrowing your focus and identifying your target group via a more tactical perspective does inform your choices in visual design and can allow you to build a user experience that caters more to the taste and perception of ‘young people’ than old.
However, from a product design perspective, it is very hard to develop and prioritize exactly which features to build for ‘affluent mums’ or ‘young people’.
When asking ‘so what characterizes their needs?’, you end up with useless statements as you are simply not capable of pinpointing an actual need that your user needs solved, but are only able to have shallow assumptions of preferences — and the will most likely end up being very generic, such as: ‘well, it has to be super simple to use’… ‘It has to give you that sense of just wanting to use it..’,
Oh dear — and here I thought our aim was to make super confusing and undesirable products.
Again, actual customer needs are too fluffy — we need to go deeper :-)
The operational segmentation categorizes users into different ‘archetypes’ and ‘impersonates’ characteristics of this type of user based on the motivations, desires, needs, and pains that the user will hire your product to solve.
This way of describing users aligns very well with the need for developing use cases when developing products and features, and is a common tool in the field of Product Management and User Experience design.
Whether we coin it ‘personas’, ‘user types’, ‘archetypes’, is to me less important. Key is that we are able to identify an actual ‘job’ that the user is willing to investin to have solved. (The investment from the user does not have to be monetary, but can simply be an investment of the user’s time — e.g., the user will spend time to onboard).
Examples of user types — for a fashion e-commerce:
The above examples of user types all totally made up for the sole purpose of providing this article with examples that are not from my real work, which I am not entitled to disclosure.
However, even with these brief descriptions, if working on an eCommerce in the fashion industry, a ton of ideas emerge on how to improve the product to make it fit better with the actual needs of the identified user types.
The operational segmentation inspires and informs you of how to build your product to provide value for your core users. Which features will this type of user likely adopt to solve their needs and overcome their pains? How do we design onboarding to accommodate and guide the user to exactly the thing in our product that will be of value?
Disclaimer: The user types are not to be perceived as ‘static’ in the sense that one person will always fit just one user type. The type of user and underlying motivator varies according to context. The same person can show several behaviors — e.g., in one instance be looking like a parent to buy rain boots a child for the upcoming fall, whilst in the next moment look impulsive for stuff to spoil himself with as a treat.
Remember: This way of segmenting your users does not make the other ways of segmenting users and your business wrong — they are just different ways, different lenses serving different purposes.
So, why haven’t we implemented ‘operational segmentation’ — or user types — yet?
I have a few assumptions:
My assumption is that professionals within product management and user experience are not fully aware of how user types ‘intersects’ with other ways of segmenting — as elaborated above.
Hence, we simply rely on the other types of segmentation that are being crafted elsewhere in our organisation (strategic and tactically) and try to use these segments in product development. We fail to do so, as they are not meant for us — they serve a different, yet rightful — purpose.
And, we might not be able to convince stakeholders across the organisation that we need an additional take on segmentation, and can’t argue the case — why spend valuable time and effort on this, when we already have plenty of ‘target audiences’ described…
Hopefully this article will sharpen your arguments. -And, as I will elaborate later, it won’t cause you to spend ‘additional time’.
“But, our product is for all users“. -A statement I have heard a couple of times (too many!!). And though we don’t want to discriminate against certain users, the argument is simply not valid for keeping us from pinpointing and describing who your core users are, and how we serve them.
Segmenting users into user types and prioritizing how best to serve them, what to prioritize for these users etc. does come with a dreadful downside. It forces us to focus and prioritize because we can’t make everything for everyone at the same time. This is the whole purpose of doing this exercise in the first place!!
Lack of accepting to focus on a subset of the users at a time is simply poisonous for your product and is a result of poor management/leadership. You will end up with a ‘jack of all trades’ product that is overly complicated and that no one finds attractive.
Focus on one thing at a time, but do it open-mindedly and be willing to trash your assumptions and move on. We’ll look into this in later…
Identifying your users’ core needs, motivations etc. is primarily a qualitative study. It is all about empathizing with your users and gaining understanding of their pains, gains, motivations and context.
The qualitative approach can to some extent be in contrast to the more quantitative approach used when identifying strategic and tactical segments.
Hence, presenting your user types to other parts of the organisation, can be met with a certain skepticism as to whether your insights are valid or not.
“How is your result valid when you based it on interviews with no more than 50 users?”
“How are your user types actually represented in size across all of our users on the platform?”
The questions are valid, but they don’t mean that we have to neglect a more qualitative approach to identifying who our users are. Again, this way of segmenting is no more right that the strategic and tactical approaches — it is a different way of doing it, but a necessary way of doing it from a product and UX perspective.
One way to make it more convincing is to use and show real statements from your users. This makes a very compelling case, especially if you can show some of your customers’ struggle from user testing videos etc. The pains become very real!
And, your qualitative ‘result’ can be supplemented with quantitative data analysis.
The first step is to make an assumption based analysis. Here you base the size of the segment on assumptions of some of the key actions you envision your users have. In case of the ‘Dreamer’ from previous. If this person is mostly browsing around in high-end luxury items, but not really buying anything, how many actually show this behavior on the platform?
This approach of course does not provide the exact scientific size of the customer segment, but will serve as an indicator of the size, which will probably be sufficient.
To get more scientific, you can stitch your qualitative findings with “actual data”. One approach is to survey users with questions related to motivation, desires, etc. that you identified as part of your qualitative inquiries, and identify these users and their behavior via cookie-matching or similar. After which you — or most likely your data scientist — can run clustering algorithms to identify onsite behavior, size of the population, and other existing stuff that will further inform your qualitative results.
Sometimes the most obvious stuff gets in our way and we can’t see the forest for the trees.
It is easy to get carried away with a smart business talk on the importance of this or that segment and forget the basics of carving out who the users are, and what their needs are.
It happened to me as well — and it took an ‘outsider’ to get me back on track.
Ask yourself: ‘What are my users actually doing, and why are they hiring my product?’, ‘what is their context — what else are they doing as part of solving this need?’, ‘what do they want to achieve, and what are their pains and struggles?’.
If you can’t answer these questions, and if you can’t put your user in a specific context and use case, you have probably fallen into the ‘smart talk trap’, where you forgot to actually talk to and investigate your users. Everything related to your users has become a big blur, and you and your colleagues keep telling yourself that it is very complicated and that you can’t simplify such a complex context and multitude.
You can! — You just need to ‘get out there’, and start talking to your users!
Maybe you have been visiting and talking to your users. Maybe on your own, maybe with your team. But, maybe everything still resides in your head and in unstructured notes.
A key element is to make the voice of the customer heard throughout the organization, and guess what — you are the one to do it!
Don’t be afraid to communicate your findings, just because they aren’t complete yet. They never will be! You will always get smarter the more you talk to your user, so don’t wait until you are done — that moment will never come. Share and present your insights.
Use simple means of communication, condensate your findings, and start sharing these on any occasion you get.
A bit too fluffy? Let’s get into how to structure all of your information!
Let’s look at what to do and how. It’s not that complicated — and it’s actually a lot of fun!
I’ll suggest that you use a standard, easy to use framework to get going.
The guys from Strategyzer have made a super, yet lightweight framework that everyone can use and understand. The framework is from the book Value Proposition Design that I will recommend everybody in this field to read (I have no affiliation, other than loving their books!).
The Value Proposition Canvas provides a frame for each of the two components that we are mostly interested in 1) The value proposition we are offering, and 2) the needs of the user for whom the value proposition is intended.
I’ll leave out the left part for another article and elaborate briefly on the right-hand side.
For each type of user that you have identified, gather and condensate their gains and pains, describe briefly who the user is, and what his/her context is.
Address the actual needs — or jobs — that the users need to solve.
Pains and gains will easily surface when simply taking it to the users and or seeing them use your product in context — or inquiring about their context and workflow even before having build or finalized your product.
Jobs to solve are a bit more tricky, as these can be broken into three different categories: Functional, Social, and Emotional.
The functional job is what we most often focus most naturally on. If we use the purchase of a car as an example, you can argue that you purchase a car to be able to transport yourself from A to B. This is the functional job, which can be substituted by renting/leasing a car, getting a cab, etc.
The social job of buying a car relates to the social aspect of owning the car and what this car signals. One could argue that a Toyota will take you from A to B just a well as a Mercedes, yet, people are willing to pay many times more the prices of a Toyota to drive a Merc. This most likely relates to the social job that this car solves — which could be that of signaling affluence and success.
The same goes for driving car types that resemble different lifestyles — e.g., the surfer that drives a pick-up. Maybe the surfboard would fit nicely into a sedan, but the pick-up signals and solves better the job of ‘appearing’ as a cool surfer dude.
The emotional job relates to the emotions that we hire products to solve. In the case of the car purchase, you might not only appear to be a surfer dude when driving a pick-up truck, but you might also feel more like a cool surfer in such a vehicle. Likewise, some will choose an SUV not because they need the space but because it feels safer to drive in an SUV than in a smaller, — emotionally perceived — more exposed sedan. You want to feel safe, and hire this type of car to solve this need.
You need to talk to your users in order to get to know them. However, you probably already did to some extent.
If you start from a clean sheet, start talking to your users. Ask the users about why they use your product, what they use it for. Do ‘contextual interviews’ to tees out their routines and tasks.
Once you have some knowledge of this — or if you think you already have some knowledge of this, start clustering the motivations of the different users and look for patterns and repeated statements, pains, etc. Do this with your team and tons of post-its to really get your hands around the essential elements and identify what stands out. Use the user type template to frame your clustering.
Fill the template digitally, and back it up with statements from user interviews.
Going back to the point about ‘Lack of evidence’, having an exhaustive material that backs up your claims and arguments will serve as really strong evidence, as well as serve as excellent onboarding when getting new members on your product or UX team.
Once you have an idea of what your users look like, validate these findings by talking to even more users. This is an ongoing process, update the material and user type descriptions as you gain new insights.
Use this simple user type framework from above to collect, group, and condensate your findings.
Keep a template per user type — you will probably end up with something like 2–6 different archetypes of users depending on your product, user base, and complexity.
Whilst the user type framework serves very well as a tool for your team and others that require a bit more insight, I suggest an even lighter way of communicating.
Making simple posters, picture frames, or cardboards of your users and placing these in plain sight throughout your organization will make your users both more present, alive, and visible in everyday life.
Choose a few, key sentences per user that clearly speaks to his/her motivation for using your product, you can always back it up with more info.
View your product from the lens of each of your user types to look for skews in your product, and for generating new ideas and focus areas to bring to your product strategy.
Use your user types as a point of departure when writing epics and user stories for development.
Soon, your user types will become part of your company language and identity.
Thanks for reading! Comments will be highly appreciated!
Curious about agile? Never miss a post!
Sign up for our newsletter (in Danish) right here 👉🏻 syndicate.dk/backstage