Persona are a great way to generate empathy to drive meaningful innovation. However, there are often obstacles in communicating the purpose and value of this process. Here are four common statements we’ve heard and our responses to each:

I know what business I’m in, and I know what problems need to be solved. Why do I need a story about a person?

Many businesses overthink features and underthink benefits, and personas offer a balancing perspective focusing on consumer needs. It’s natural to get caught up in easily-measured dimensions like price, performance, and features, but none of that matters if users aren’t understanding the product’s value. Data-driven evaluation is important, but it needs a balancing component to make sure that the collection of features amounts to real benefits. Personas use storytelling to inspire ideas that will resonate clearly, resetting or reframing a brand’s value proposition.

Make sure everyone on the team understands how storytelling is an effective and efficient way to remain grounded in consumer needs. Ultimately, the products we develop are for people, and personas are a great way to gut check an idea, asking “Would our user actually want this?” Reassure team members that personas complement, rather than replace, other consumer work being done. Once you gain buy in, create the personas as a multi-disciplinary team to build alignment, rather than compartmentalizing this activity within the design function.

How can a single person represent the entire segment that I need to design for? Personas seem too narrow to be a good tool for the problems I need to solve.

While they are polar opposites in many ways, segments and personas should be complementary. Each has advantages and disadvantages, so ensure that everyone understands that personas are a way to layer meaning into a project, not replace a well-established tool for consumer understanding. From a design perspective, personas exist to create the empathy that segmentation does not.

Use segmentation to inform personas and show teams how the two relate to each other. We typically recommend that personas live at the edges of existing segments, incorporating the key attitudes and then adding a few surprising elements to stimulate new ideas or a shift in value. Mapping personas and segments together helps teams understand where to stretch their thinking and how it relates to existing consumer knowledge.

I’ve used personas before, but they always turn out the same: trendy, young, glamorous. They’re not inspiring. Maybe they’re not right for my category.

When a team has a lot of experience using personas, the value can errode over time. More importantly, if personas aren’t done well, you’ll end up with people that are too perfect and don’t have any interesting flaws (we call them “superheroes”). Uninspiring personas are often the result of an incomplete story.

Personas need three elements to be complete: attitudes, activities, and values. Attitudes make up the point of view and emotional state of the user, while activities detail the environment and the actions the user is taking. When you put them together, you can find core values that will drive both functional and aesthetic product requirements. Most of the time, we use personas to inspire new opportunities and push boundaries. If the target is a little too familiar to do this on it’s own, look to current socio-cultural trends to bring a new twist that will push people out of their comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to go into detail! While personas can feel like a less-than-natural fit for some categories, their purpose to drive innovation should have a universal benefit if done correctly.

Why are personas always so idealized? I’m designing for real people with real needs. Our consumers are not that cool.

Personas do rely on some fabrication to ensure that all the right pieces come together for an inspiring story, but they do not set out to alienate “real people.” In fact, good personas are more realistic than the stereotypes teams often build up over time. It feels counter-intuitive to create a fictitious user while also boasting it’s empathic, “real” qualities, but it works. This paradox highlights a key challenge with persona development that needs to be clearly communicated.

Innovation is driven in part by what’s new and exciting, and consumers are often incapable of envisioning the future on their own. For this reason, personas won’t drive innovation the way we need it to if they are based on stereotypical or otherwise average people. Instead, envision personas as early adopters. They are grounded in some of the same beliefs as the average consumer but are more open to new experiences. Finally, don’t assume that your consumers are uncool or treat them as average in any way. This attitude will only result in a product that delivers low value. Instead, approach consumers with an open mindset that allows each one to feel special.