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Evolving Our User Personas in 2021

Our UX team updated Meltwater’s user personas in 2021. Originally created in 2016, they needed to be revised due to changing markets, changes in our product, and the industry as a whole. In this post, Andy Proehl, our director of user experience design shares what we changed and what we learned in the process.

What are personas?

Personas are generalized representations of a product’s users. They can be created from user data or interviews, but it is critical that they are based on real information from actual customers. It is impossible to know each customer individually, so personas help businesses understand the spectrum of users and their needs and challenges as it relates to the business. The goal is to generate empathy from the target audience, typically product teams, which include product managers, developers and designers, as well as key stakeholders, like executives.

Our initial personas

We completed the first version of our personas in 2016. We started with a general interview script, survey data, and a hypothesis regarding who our users were at the time. We interviewed about 20 users and customers, and a dozen account representatives in different regions and countries for a sense of users from different markets. We then analyzed the findings to create the personas. Lastly, we gave each persona a name and illustration to make them more human and memorable.

What worked. What didn’t.

The 2016 personas were a big success. They were embraced by executives and used by the majority of the product teams. The core personas, Conrad, Sheryl, and Nancy, were known across the company. Sometimes personas fall flat, or are ignored, but we were surprised by the level of engagement by our colleagues.

By making Conrad an older white male, we were also implying that directors are white and male. We wanted to change that.

As you can see from the illustrations, our personas were gender and race-specific. This made them specific and memorable. They were more female than male because that was what we had observed in the interviews. But over time, what made them memorable also became a problem. However accurate at the time, we were reinforcing stereotypes. By making Conrad an older white male, we were also implying that directors are white and male. In our updated personas, we decided to remove specific references to gender and race.

Updating our personas

Several issues drove the need for updates:

  • Time - Five years had gone by. In 2016, we observed that traditional PR users could be reluctant technology adopters. We expected to see a shift as younger professionals entered the field and managers grew more tech-savvy. Measuring impact also became a growing topic for the industry.
  • Company Acquisitions - Meltwater had acquired several companies in the intervening years, including Sysomos, a social media company, and Encore Alerts, an AI-based alerting company. These products had different users and customers than Meltwater so we needed to factor them into our personas.
  • Changing Markets - Meltwater had begun to sell into new markets including Marketing departments and larger scale enterprises. The PR industry was also changing. Bigger companies were consolidating PR with Marketing under the CMO. These changes impacted our user base.

Emergence of the Analyst

Meltwater’s service includes a significant analytics offering. Our hypothesis in 2016 was that there were analysts on PR teams digging through the data. However, we didn’t encounter a single analyst in our interviews back then. In 2021, we found and included analysts in our research. This is partly due to the increased focus on measurement in PR. Consolidation with Marketing teams was also a driver, as they have been measuring their impact for much longer.

Clarifying the Generalist

In 2016, we described certain users as “one man shops”, but we stopped short of making them a persona. Many nonprofits and industry associations that use Meltwater have tiny PR departments where one or two people do it all. They monitor coverage, respond to media inquiries, do the day-to-day monitoring, and generate reports for their stakeholders. These users wear many hats and use our applications intermittently. The result of this is that they must learn some features over and over because they don’t use them often enough to remember. So in 2021, we decided to make them an official persona.

Image: Gerry the Generalist: A sample persona summary showing the attribute spectrums we developed.

Elevating the Specialist

In contrast to the Generalist are the Specialists. In 2016, we had Nancy the PR Rep, someone who was a junior member of a PR team, or sometimes a summer intern. In the new research, we found many types of specialists using our software. There are people who manage social media activity and publishing or those who manage marketing campaigns. On the PR side, there are typically specialists who do journalist research, curate newsletters, or put together weekly reports. They are a critical user for Meltwater.

Making them memorable

A key change we decided to make in 2021 was to remove gender and race from the picture so as to avoid reinforcing stereotypes. This presented a new challenge of how to name our personas. We considered using the names of prominent cities where we have offices. One set of personas we read about used the names of Greek gods as a way to anonymize but also empower the group they were profiling. Ultimately, we decided to use alliteration and a set of gender neutral names like Cameron the CMO and Gerry the Generalist. While the names feel a bit hokey or cheeky, we hope they will aid in remembering them. Here are the six personas set within an overview diagram.

What we would do differently next time

Of course, as soon as you release a product, you see the flaws or have ideas about improvements. This is also the case with personas. Some things we’d like to explore in the future include:

  • More international representation - A few of the names we used in 2016 were based on names of employees from around the world. It helped connect them to interviews we had done there. While the new names we chose are gender neutral, they are also specific to English speaking countries and lack a representation of our global reach. The naming quest will continue.
  • Move away from titles - Our 2016 personas were very titles-focused because several were well-known entities for sales and product managers. This helped in adoption and setting context. It helped us make the point that while Conrad was a key target for sales, he was not in the platform at all once the deal was closed. In the next round, we need to work harder to isolate personas from their professional titles. Gerry the Generalist is one example. Gerry is someone we see in nonprofits and professional associations. They can be directors, managers, or individual contributors. What defines them is that they wear multiple hats and context-switch frequently. This makes it hard for them to become specialists or to master our platform.
  • Seek out accessibility and diversity needs among our users - Although we did not encounter any users with accessibility or other needs, we know they are out there and need to make a larger effort to understand their unique needs and struggles.

Like software, personas require updates. They are frequently debated in the UX Design community and can be controversial. When done without talking to your users, they can reinforce internal misconceptions. When done correctly, they help product teams empathize with users and want to solve their problems.

How are you handling user personas? Have you integrated topics like diversity and accessibility into them? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.