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Do you know what your clients really value?Start with a persona – A great way to understand your clients’ motivations

By Karla Schlaepfer
design thinking, design sprints, agile methoden, inspiration, collaboration

Design Thinking uses many different levers to understand the problem as well as the client. In this human-centered framework, the phases and experimental approach are well defined, but not the actual tools or methods that can be used within each phase. It is up to the skillful Design Thinking facilitator to choose specific tools. The choice determines the impact. 🔎Good to know there is a rich variety of inspirational tools depending on the context and challenge.

What is a persona and why is its used?

One super helpful tool is the persona. Personas are in essence invented people that represent the different mindsets, motivations, and behavior patterns of your various audience segments. Personas are used in widely different contexts also outside of Design Thinking like in marketing or in agile product development. Personas can be seen as sounding boards that guide your Design Thinking process.


There are different kinds of personas (Buyer, Role, Proto, etc). Here I’m going to describe the type that we often use in Design Thinking. These personas are created in the first or second phase of the Design Thinking 6 phase process. Often in the Empathy, Understand or Define phase. In order to made a persona, we first ask and answer questions based on our own experiences. We brainstorm a ton of hypotheses about the persona’s life, interests, relevant demographic information and add all this to a persona canvas or template.

And of course, the persona is baptized with a name! This brings your persona to life 🤩😇

You and your team use this “persona” as a kind of focus point. You can refer back to her or him at any point during the design thinking process, especially in the solution space. It is often helpful to ask, what would, for example, “Veronika” think of this? Or how would she react to a particular feature or change? Veronika by the way, is the name of a famous persona that guided the makers of Ferrero products like Nutella for many years.

Personas help you understand the types of people you should target your particular service or product for and what makes your target customer happy when they buy your product.


In Design Thinking, our first personas capture the teams’ assumptions. These assumptions are later validated through qualitative user-research and continual adaption. What is qualitative research? We seek out and talk with those we are designing for! We hit the streets, observe and if this isn’t possible, we do video interviews using open questioning tactics. The team discovers and checks if what was assumed or guessed ie. what “Veronika” needs, actually syncs with what real target users tell us. There are usually lots of surprises and much adjustment. This is to be expected and is all part of the Design Thinking iterative, open-ended process. It is adaptive and flexible.

Quick and Dirty 😅

This is not to say that there are not good reasons to use “quick and dirty” personas! These are based just on brainstorming assessments of what you and your team know about the client or potential client. These personas can help get a first direction going, whether they are validated or not. There is no one right way to use this tool. Use it in the way it makes sense for your scope and time budget.

Design Sprints

Design Sprints for example, take a different route. On the first day, after the long-term goals are defined, interviews are carried out with SME (subject matter experts). The team captures the expert knowledge in notes and uses this information as a basis to work from. The persona is created indirectly by interaction and interviews with the customer expert. This means, there is not a direct exchange with targeted customers but with someone, an “expert”, who does have the direct contact and knowledge of the customer base.

This information provides valuable initial information as you’re getting starting with the campaign or discovery product cycle. The Design Sprint process sees the assumption validation in the later steps of the Sprint and in the testing of the prototype. We change as we go along, adapting and tweaking our results to better fit to our understanding of the problem and the clients’ needs.

Creating personas can help you step out of yourself

This seems like such a no-brainer. But actually, it is not.🧐 When problem solving or looking for answers, we humans naturally apply our own thinking models and experience. Why do we often assume that what we think is good, the others will like as well? In effect, we’re solving the problem for ourselves, not for our potential client! There is no perspective shift to the needs of the target customer or user. Personas can help us to recognize that different people have different needs and expectations, and it is those requirements, often emotive requirements, we have to focus on if we want to trigger innovation.

Perspective Shift ⚡

Design Thinking leverages a clear perspective shift. We use this in making our personas that help us inch our way on the journey towards uncovering needs, motivations and ultimately discovering values of our future customers. Constructing personas will help you ask the right questions and answer those questions in line with the users you are designing for.

We ask ourselves, what would emotional nudge our persona to choose our product and would they buy it? What would motivate them to do so? At the end of the day, we design for these underlying needs.

Use Empathy

So, here’s the key and how I’ve had the best results. Remember personas are not real. They do not describe real people, but in Design Thinking you and your team compose your personas based on real data collected from multiple individuals. Then we put it all together and apply an 💗empathetic stance to find trends and patterns in the data that has been collected. This is the basis for HMWs (how might we questions), the questions we want to solve in the solution space. Applying these patterns will help you and your team find more relevant, meaningful understandings of who you’re servicing and how to create real targeted value 🎯 with your offerings.

Tool 💡 for Product Owners

There is a clear application for the persona tool in agile development, like with scrum. For example, at the beginning of a scrum sprint cycle. Personas are so easy to use and could be a beneficial tool to help product owners add the human touch and emotive perspective (qualitative) to what might otherwise remain cold (quantitative) facts in their research.

Tool 🛠 for the Legal Profession

The same applies for Design Thinking for jurists. As law firms struggle to keep up with client demands, they too are beginning to embrace a more holistic approach like Design Thinking. After all, design thinking is about asking the right questions and thinking about the problem from the user’s perspective. For law firms, that means instead of inventing new ways to do legal work they have a tool like a persona to help them think about and uncover what their clients’ needs really are and come up with solutions for addressing them.

🔊To sum up: Personas are a great, inexpensive way to test out ideas and validate hypotheses before much time or money has been spent! 💲

Read more about Personas in my book, “Design Thinking? Ask me anything!”. The e-book is in German and provides a comprehensive overview of Design thinking, with case studies and lots of hands-on tools.

Interested in more information? Check out this awesome article with more detail and examples. In the Interaction Design Foundation with 10 Steps to Creating Your Engaging Personas and Scenarios.

Give me a shout out if you have feedback or questions!

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful day!
Karla Schlaepfer