Building Client Personas

On April 27th, SonicRim hosted our fifth Whiteboard event at our SOMA office. This time we did things a little differently.  Rather than continuing with the open format of previous Whiteboard events, the April attendees participated in a persona building exercise—with the objective of creating personas of the types of clients who seek out and employ design researchers. It was an offbeat assignment for sure, but one that quickly engaged our collective attention.

So why build client personas? In a word: foresight!

In a few more words: to construct a loose frame for evaluating and thinking through client interactions, to help optimize future opportunities and perhaps mitigate future frustrations as well.

More often than not, consumers of design research are embedded in a business culture that is far removed from the creative culture of designers and design researchers. Understanding how that gulf shapes our clients’ perceptions and expectations—not just of us, but of the world—can make all the difference in turning a short-term commitment, into a fruitful, long lasting relationship.

Thinking through the types of relationships we’d like to have with our clients presents us with an opportunity to structure our ways of thinking to realize those relationships.  Likewise, reflecting on those difficult client relationships enables us to identify where things went awry—and imagine ways that similar difficulties could be averted in the future.

And, if we are so effective as cultural interpreters and translators, why not turn our methods on exploring the gaps in understanding that directly impact how we do business?

Working in four teams of four individuals, attendees constructed collages of images and words that personified their collective client experiences. Teams dedicated roughly an hour to building their personas, sharing stories, and validating each other’s experiences.  In the end, we produced ten posters reflecting a range of clients and client traits, from red flags to anticipate and prepare for, to positive traits that we should always be sure to appreciate, validate and encourage in our clients.

Each group devised their own approach to designing and defining their personas.  Some took to creating very specific archetypes, while others (such as my own group) painted their ideal and non-ideal clients in broad strokes. In every case, the results were provocative and offered a great deal of insight into the relationship of researcher and client.

Reviewing the collages, it’s clear that there is a lot of common thinking around what attributes define a strong, positive client relationship. The clients who have these characteristics are often “outsiders” within their organizations– dreamers and innovators who want to evoke change from within. They are often the ones who strive to break down silos to create more fluid organizations, and seek cultural research as an incitement for innovation. They may be looking for a catalyst, or a fire-starter—someone to jumpstart a team, or to refresh outmoded ways of thinking within a working group. These clients want to challenge and be challenged, and they trust that we will deliver.

Another emergent positive theme is that of the “Harmonizer.” This client is adroit at keeping all of the balls in the air.  They understand the politics of their organization, so they are skilled at keeping the brass appeased, without falling into the negative “people-pleaser” trope. Furthermore, they are often subtle influencers, capable of keeping doors open, and also closing if the occasion warrants.

There is also some consensus to be found on the other end of the scale, as well. The “Ladder-Climber” is most concerned with coming out of the research looking good. They’re only interested in the big picture, and chase silver bullet solutions over slow-cooking strategies.  The “Worrier” is often the most demanding of the less flattering personas—a micro-manager, who frets over the details. More often than not, this person knows what they want to see going into the research process, and will fight tooth and nail to keep their mental picture intact. They’re risk-averse and need frequent reassurance in order to keep moving forward.

This is only a brief “preliminary analysis” of the data—there are more personas reflected on these collages than I can enumerate here. This isn’t the end, however: my colleague Arvind Venkataramani and I plan to delve into and develop these personas as time allows and make them available to participants and anyone with an interest.  Stay tuned for further details.

There will be no May Whiteboard sesssion due to the Memorial Day holiday. The next Whiteboard @SonicRim will be on Friday, June 29th

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