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Identifying user personas for software quality strategies

The success of a product (software or otherwise) depends on, among other things, how good it is -- both in absolute terms and relative to the competitors' products. Decisions about how to compete -- what price to charge, how to enter new markets, which capabilities to add or remove from the product -- can only be made with an understanding of how the

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product stacks up for a user persona. How good a product is -- from a customer's point of view, relative to alternatives -- has a direct influence on the success of that product.

Usually, making the product better will be an investment that will make the business better. But, before we can make it better, we have to know what constitutes better. The first step is to determine how good the product is today, which starts with defining good.

Think about product goodness in the context of the following questions:

  1. What is our company's strategy?
  2. Which customers are key to the success of that strategy?
  3. Which problems are most important to those customers?
  4. What measures (of the product) are most relevant to solving those problems?
  5. How does the product compare to alternatives, specifically against those measures?

These five questions establish and clarify the context and perspective needed for a relevant answer to the question: How good is the product?

Moving products into the future

While it is nice to have an assessment of the current state of affairs, what really matters is deciding what to do next. Should we invest more (or less) in the product? In which capabilities should we invest? How much improvement is needed? Why do we believe these investments will move our strategy forward?

When considering making an investment in improving a product, many teams will look at a proposed change, classify it as better than before and move on. That's not enough. The team should be trying to show that a particular investment will advance the company's strategy. How many additional sales will we achieve (or how much attrition can we avoid) by adding or improving a given capability?

People will desire a good product more than they desire a mediocre product. So, how do we know which products our target customers prefer?

In the world of product creation, we use buyer personas to help us understand the behavior of groups of individuals within our markets. Where market segments represent collections of customers with common needs, user personas reflect collections of customers within a market segment who not only share those needs but also place similar relative value on addressing those needs.

Every time I see the expensive bags of microwave popcorn next to the inexpensive bags of popcorn kernels (and the large bags of already-popped popcorn) at the grocery store, I think about user personas. These different versions of popcorn target buyers who place different amounts of relative importance on convenience. These popcorns target the same market segment -- people who like popcorn; the user personas, however, are slightly different.

One persona would classify the already popped popcorn as best because of the convenience of just eating it -- no preparation required. The other persona would find the price premium to be excessive, considering that it only takes a couple minutes to make a batch of popcorn from scratch, and prefers the kernels.

Using this persona framework, we can assess the relative importance of each capability to each persona. In the previous example, the first persona would put high importance on convenience and lower importance on price point. The second persona is the opposite with high importance on price point and a lesser concern for convenience.

It is important to focus extra effort on the personas that match our business strategy. Assessing our product's performance -- relative to the competition -- in the areas of importance to the right personas increases our likelihood of predicting the success of our strategy.

This is the context for hypothesizing the impact of investments in our products. Here's an example that sticks closer to software. The producers of a particular barcode scanner might say, "Our competitor's product has much higher battery life, and works in much wider temperature ranges than our product. However, our target customers will only use the device indoors, so we will focus our investments on improving battery life."

This framework around user personas helps focus on investments that advance our strategy, ultimately creating a better product.

Scott Sehlhorst has written a multi-article series on the Tyner Blain blog that covers product comparisons in much greater depth. Please check that series out and let us know your thoughts on product assessment.

This was first published in January 2014

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