One of my favorite recurring characters from Saturday Night Live was that of ‘Master Thespian’ as played by Jon Lovitz, a hilarious play on the overblown pontificating that plagued theaters up into the 19th century. It slays me every time, especially in those episodes in which Jonathan Lithgow plays the Thespian’s mentor Baudelaire, with hackneyed instructions such as:
Remember thespian, when you speak;
You must say your lines in an ascending scale of volume and pitch;
Till your final words ring ignobly, then tremble while descending.
But what has this got to do with personas? I’m a product manager dang it! What about MY needs?! Glad you asked.
Rather, as product managers, we just need to remember that when we get stuck creating and/or want to add depth to our personas, that there are availble concepts and training exercises from the world of acting — and yes, even opera — that can help us deliver effective customer archetypes.
Here are just a few.
Creating a Role
In the first part of Stanislavski’s third and final book titled ‘Creating a Role,’ he outlines a process by which
- we study the voice of the character,
- emotionally relate to the joys and pains of character,
- and finally, become the physical voice of the character.
Voice of the character, voice of the customer, you see where I’m taking this.
Just about every UX and product owner playbook and blog post includes a stock user persona boilerplate these days. Donna Lichaw offers some superior resources in this area in the form of her ‘Storymapping Workbook.’
Such practices and exercises are a very good thing, after all, it’s healthy to visualize the persona with a face, a name, an age range, a job title, and other significant segmentation data points.
But why not take this one step further? As you build a persona based on real-life aggregates, as you struggle to get past a contrived user journey, why not also add a little more depth by also adding a little history such as:
- Where they were born?
- Where did they go to school?
- Are they a dog or a cat person?
- What type of car do they like to drive?
- What type of car do they actually drive?
- What is their breakfast to commute to first hour of work routine like?
- Paleo, vegan, or somewhere in between?
- American football or soccer?
- Golf or bicycling? Of the latter, road or mountain?
- What do they want most out of life? What are they willing to do to get it? What will they do if they don’t?!
Now please, don’t use the above enumeration as your sole basis for user stories (apologies, I think most of you know this … but y’know). Instead, use these types of question to further breathe life into data-driven personas that I hope you’ve built off dozens of surveys, face-to-face interviews, and day-long ‘walk-a-mile in their shoes’ client visits.
So you’ve taken my suggestion, and added a personal depth to your characterizations, and you’re finding out that you’re still not “feeling it.” Truth is, in many cases, your user stories wind up simply substituting a name like “Annie the Accountant” for a role such as “As an accountant …”
In other words, when we talk of Annie, we want her persona to resonate rather than her job description. We want her name to evoke emotional images among our developers, QA and automation engineers. As a team, we want to think “What makes Annie hilariously giddy?” versus “How does Annie act when she’s petrified in fear?”
I’m not going to get into behavioral analytics in this post, but rather I want to talk about some acting exercises in emotional recall that will give us this emotional empathy of our archetype aggregate Annie.
From this, I’m hoping y ‘all will gain insights on how you might leverage product manager-centric analytics tools such as Pendo.io to figure out when and how and on what worse case scenario caused Annie to go from a zealous Net Promoter to a quivering huddled mass of flop-sweat using your application.
So indulge me, and close your eyes for a few minutes … and think about something awesome …like that feeling you get when you drive past your neighbors with a brand new car. Bask in whatever glorious feelings you have.
Once you’ve reopened your eyes, write down some keywords to help you remember that feeling.
Now one more time if you please … close your eyes for a couple minutes and think about a time you were laid off, fired, put on a PIP, or simply feared for the worse about your job. I know, it’s a big contrast from the prior emotion, that’s by design. Think about the sleepless nights, crying into your pillow. Relive the fears about potentially missing a car payment.
Now again, write down some words that will help trigger the feelings of this horrible and stressful time.
Congratulations, you now have a much closer emotional understanding of of how your customers feel when their job is at risk because your software fails into their worse possible scenario … with triggering keywords to help light up your active recall … and possibly even include in your user stories.
Park Bench Game
This is a group exercise, where you’ll have two participants sit next to each other. The rest of the team observes.
But before your two extroverted volunteers actually sit down, first establish a concept to the entire room of a common <product x>. It can be something real, like your favorite soft drink. It can even be your own software.
Once that’s established, hand the first participant a slip of paper with instructions to:
“Recall the emotions of a time you were embarrassed in school or a party because of something you wore or ate. Now blame that emotion on suggesting the purchase of <product X> to your boss and co-workers.”
To the second actor, a note that asks them to:
“Remember how you felt driving a brand new car home. Now use that feeling as excitement and experience to sell that ‘new car like nirvana’ by selling <product X> to the person next to you.”
There is no script, costumes are optional, and now instruct both participants to engage in an organic dialog based off their respective motivations, and if the participants are honest, the tensions and conflicts between each other.
From this, you hopefully identify a range of emotions that can be associated with product abandonment, customer push back, and/or loss of a sale. Keep this in mind during your next win/loss interview.
Just don’t go so dark with your personas that you botch a donut commercial with over-analyzing one’s character.
Other Thoughts and Resources
As I mentioned before, the above is not to replace the work of a product manager or UX practitioner. You still need to do the work of collecting data on what your user says versus what they do. You still need to engage in surveys. You still need to get your multivariate, A/B testing right.
But the point of this post was to bring you awareness of some teaching, techniques, and exercises that help you deeply explore the psyche driving your personas … and from that … you ask better questions, collect better data, and show more empathy.
Who knows, while you may not win an academy award, you might at least learn more and reduce waste while delivering the right features of value at the last responsible moment — YMMV.
- TheaterFolk.com — Top 5 Acting Exercises for Drama Students
- 3 Useful Acting Exercises for Understanding Your Script & Character
- Method Acting Procedures — The Sense Memory Exercise
- Stanislavski — ‘getting into character [PDF]’ — Crofton Academy
- Drama Toolkit — Drama Games (72 in total, not including the 3 for mime)
- Stanislavski’s 7 Questions for Better Understanding