The reason most products are alike is that they are the first thing that came to someone’s mind.

Or in some cases the second or third thing, which is invariably still a variation on the theme of the first thing. This is why most cars look broadly alike, most ads on TV (if you still watch that kind of thing) feature a product and a price, and why all our smartphones are slick rectangular slabs.

Now, you might argue that this is because it is an established product (or service). That it is a standard and that deviating from that standard would make it unrecognisable for the customer and therefore a flop. Consequently, the logic goes, developing a product or service that in broad terms is exactly like that of the competitor, is a safe and brilliant idea. After all, why stick out in the market place?

Don’t stop at 1-2-3

Developing a new idea, one that is not just a variation on the same theme but really new, requires you to force yourself to iterate. To not stop when it is comfortable, but to keep going until you are in uncharted territory. This is hard, but rewarding.

Try this exercise

It is called crazy 8’s and we’ve run this in all kinds of workshops with all kinds of people. Take a piece of paper, fold it three times in half and you end up with 8 rectangles. In the first draw and apple. In the second draw a completely different apple. In the third an apple that is different from the first and second one and so on. What this exercise clearly demonstrates is that everyone’s first apple is exactly the same. The second is a variation on the theme and so is the third one. By the fourth rectangle people are generally running out of good ideas of how to draw an apple and start clutching at straws. By drawing a pack of apple juice instead. And then the floodgates of ideas hit them as they realise, it is also possible to draw apple pies, apple trees, apples seeds, happy worms in apples, I love NY symbols and computer company logos.




The thing is, that not everyone can do this the first time. It requires you to be fairly comfortable thinking laterally about things, not just literally. Working in a group with critical colleagues, it requires real courage to zig when everyone else is only zagging. Within a real brainstorming session inside an organisation, when you have only two hours to come up with new ideas, where you have to be “creative”, it might just be impossible to stick your neck out with an abstract concept when everyone else is sticking to safe and proposing a new and better colour for the shoes, that will really make them stick out in the sneaker category.

Forcing yourself, and your organisation, to really iterate and develop a theme until it is only connected in thought to the initial concept, is difficult. However, as the crazy 8’s exercise clearly demonstrates, if you don’t iterate further, then all you’ll do is end up in exactly the same place as your competitors. Because they didn’t push ideas further either, and came up with the same variation of theme as you did.

Same shit, different channel

Playing it safe is the least safe game you can play. While inside your organisation, it affords you the comfort of not sticking out, in the market place the safe play will disappear on the shelf with all the other safe bets. Consequently, since nothing is really sticking out and making a difference, a lot of effort and finances will be spent on advertising the same-old-same-old product in a new and creative but still safe manner of showing the product at a discounted price, making the only thing that is unique about the product how cheap it is.

Since cheap products cannot be really good products (or services), then you need to sell more and more, which drives consumption but in the end creates very little lasting value for anyone. Which will inevitably lead to another “product innovation workshop” where you have to be even more creative to come up with the next new exactly the same product as your competitor, but now in a nicer package.

Personas are a short cut. Unless you can have a real-life unbiased customer sitting in your office 24/7, answering and reacting naturally to every idea you have, then the next best thing is a persona.

To put it very bluntly, personas help you empathise. And empathy is the secret ingredient to creating products and services that people love. (Or hate, in case your job is to design a better speed trap for motorists.) How they help you empathise, however, varies depending on the job that you need the persona to do for you, as well as the context in which others will have to relate to the persona.

Broadly speaking, there are four categories of personas. Each type of persona description is suitable for a particular application and choosing the right type of persona to create is crucial to success of whatever it is that you are planning to do.

The four personas are:
1) workshop personas
2) presumption personas
3) function personas
4) ball-plank personas

Workshop personas

The workshop persona is, wait for it, a persona created for use by people during a workshop. The goal of the persona is to enable workshop participants to quickly empathise with a particular person / people group. The key words here were, quickly empathise. That means that the persona is reduced in terms of text, to the most core / key personality traits, pains and gains. It has to be readable in a flash, emotionally charged and memorable instantly. This allows people in the workshop to work on, whatever scenario they are working on, from the perspective of the persona.

Creating this type of persona is research intensive. It has to be anchored in reality. Because this persona eschews detail in favour of motivation and emotion, the amount of work to get to the main situational personality drivers, is quite large. Furthermore, the shorter something is written, the better it must be formulated.

The clear benefit of this type of persona, however, is that people quickly relate to them and can, from the users point of view, participate in a workshop scenario from outside of their own experience.


Presumption personas

As it says in the name, these personas are presumptions. In a situation where it is important to quickly get a user perspective, but without access to actual users but with access to subject matter experts, a team can quickly guesstimate alternative reasonable user profiles.

Presumption personas are useful up to a point. For internal workshops across silos, creating the presumption persona can help teams develop a common understanding of the customer / user, which later can facilitate coming to a common understanding of the customer’s / user’s challenges in using the product or service. They are also a time short-cut, because they allow teams to immediately delve into the product / service experience, without spending a lot of time first understanding the customer.

The danger, obviously, is that teams start presuming that the presumption personas are based in fact. Presumption being the mother of all fuck ups, it is crucial that the result of any kind of work done with presumption personas is later validated in real customer research. Interviews, observations etc.


Function personas

Function personas are detailed socio-demographic descriptions of persons in particular situations or functions. That means, that while they are humans with all the associated traits, the goal of the work at hand is to improve / understand the particular function they fulfil in a job. For example, the challenges an assembly line worker faces while the factory re-tools for the next generation product.

This type of granular persona allows persons with little or no personal experience of the challenges faced in that particular function, to better empathise while developing products / services that impact that functions ability to perform.

To develop these personas, a lot of research is needed, as well as audio-visual aids to really illustrate the daily challenges faced by the function. These personas will be used over an extended period of time while developing solutions, and therefore great care must be taken to render them accurate.


Ball-plank personas

A ball-plank is someone you can bounce ideas and concepts off. These types of personas are common in marketing, as definitions of key customers. Typically, there are several particular persona types that represent the brands important customer groups, but reduced to look and feel like real people. These personas include a lot of socio-demographic information from the customer group, but is re-worded to feel like one person.

Ball-plank personas are used for an extended period of time, before they are updated (but not discarded). People change over time, so personas should too, but not radically. Furthermore, while people grow into and out of brands, marketing will tend to focus on a core demographic.

The challenge with ball-plank personas is to make them relevant to persons in the organisation, who on a daily basis, don’t think about customers. Therefore, the most effective ball-plank personas will also have a workshop persona version, to make it easier for non-involved people to quickly empathise with the company’s core customer groups.


Choosing the right persona for the work you are doing is crucial, if you want others in the organisation to take personas seriously. People working with personas have to experience an immediate benefit otherwise they will treat them as nothing more that fictional characters with no basis in fact. Use workshop personas for understanding journeys of users when involving different stakeholders, that have an understanding of the service / product. Create presumption personas when you need to get going on a user experience design for a product or service, but have little / no data on actual usage patterns. Use function personas when you are working on limited experience situations, where the users are highly invested in the service or product (such as employees). Ball-plank personas are best for long-term brand and concept building situations, where everyone in the organisation needs to (eventually) have an understanding of who the customer actually is. Good luck, and remember to have fun.

PS: How we call persona types isn’t necessarily how other’s call them. But the essence is the same.