Whether you need to understand a user base for a go-to-market strategy or are looking to build customer awareness across the business, creating accurate user personas backed by qualitative research is critical.

Why Use Qualitative Research for Personas

Accurately defining personas is essential to success in everything from user experience, to product development and marketing. Yet many organizations do not fully understand the “person” in the persona, and either rely on anecdotal evidence from colleagues, or leverage quantitative data exclusively. While teams can (and do) utilize those sources to develop personas, it often leads them down inaccurate or incomplete paths.

Although quantitative research and data may help to identify larger trends in user or customer behavior, the most direct path towards accurate personas involves qualitative research. That’s because qualitative research helps uncover the “why’s”: why what you have to offer meets the needs of your target audience. Indeed, qualitative insights offer market researchers a way to assess the situational context that’s often needed to humanize user groups.

Use qualitative research to look further beyond the data. Understanding who your users are can be more powerful than trying to predict what they’re most likely to buy. While it’s true that all good personas are evidence-backed, behavioral data or sales statistics don’t necessarily paint a complete picture — neither relying on a team’s collective knowledge nor quantitative data goes far enough to reveal users’ emotions, values and motivations.

According to Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP Jennifer Spencer in Entrepreneur.com:

“The reason personas are so effective is they help you see the human side of customers. Too often, businesses develop the bad habit of viewing customers as data points. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to connect to a data point.”

Qualitative research allows market researchers to get both deep and specific. For instance, if you are developing a persona for consumers of high-end apparel, your respondents may state: “I am worth the investment” or “I am in a socioeconomic group that can easily afford this brand.” These are different statements, coming from different motivating factors. A well-designed persona includes richer detail to give deeper context and meaning.

Through further discussions with consumers, the statement: “I am worth the investment” may reveal that the user equates spending more money with greater self-worth. In that case, the payoff for purchasing the high-end apparel would be to enhance the user’s innate sense of self-worth.

Getting deep and specific about users through personas not only adds meaning, but might also inspire product development teams to think of solutions in more consumer-centric ways — ways that might help entire organizations gain more empathy for their users.

Whether you are creating new personas or refreshing those that already exist, follow our five steps for using qualitative research to develop more accurate personas:

1. Establish Your Hypotheses

It’s important to start each research project by conducting a knowledge assessment and developing a learning plan to close the gaps.

Start by reviewing what you already know — the facts that can be supported by prior data. Then, ask yourself or your teams what you think you know. This section may include thoughts, assumptions, and any tribal knowledge that teams have today about their users or prospects.

Typically, this is the most interesting part of the persona-building process, as it can be illuminating (and fun) to prove your colleagues’ assumptions wrong. By unearthing your colleagues’ biases with new insights, you can truly bring your customer or user base to life, and you’ll be on the right track in achieving more empathy across the board.

To finish this stage of the process, you’ll need to then align your team on what the great “unknowns” are, and finally, propose a plan of attack in terms of what questions you’ll be answering through your qualitative research program.

2. Determine Your Recruitment Strategy

There are many ways to recruit and engage with respondents. Here, Discuss.io shines as a purpose-built platform that enables insights teams to conduct sessions that probe deeply into users’ experiences. Interactive features such as whiteboarding and polling further enable context-enriching discussions with respondents and help insights teams build empathy for their customers’ experiences. In addition, Discuss.io offers mobile screen sharing to build insights that improve mobile user experiences.

Next, it’s time to think about the number of customers or users to base your personas off of. For most qualitative studies, at least six to seven respondents are needed to identify consistent themes and draw conclusions.

The sample size should also be dependent upon any existing segmentation that your company has created; or, any geographical considerations or different user stages — life stage, level of experience with your offering, maturity within the adoption journey, etc. Once you’ve got a sense of who you’ll need to talk to and how many people you’ll need to reach to construct an accurate persona, Discuss.io’s global recruitment capabilities can help you to source the right respondents, from the right place and at the right time.

3. Develop a Discussion Guide

After developing an insights gathering strategy, it’s now time to determine what questions to ask. Here, it often makes sense to start with the end goal in mind. Consider what sections you think your persona will need to include (lifestyle choices, buying motivators, etc) and tailor your questions accordingly.

A typical session will cover three to five topics based on key research objectives. These can include, by order of operation: awareness, product use, buying behavior and switching.

When creating a list of questions, not only is it important to pay attention to the order of your topics, but it’s also important to pay attention to how questions are ordered within each topic area to ensure each question builds upon the last and inspires thoughtful answers. For example, try to ask questions that are:

  • General, then specific
  • Behavioral, then attitudinal
  • Positive, then negative
  • Unaided, then aided

For more information, we’ve developed a discussion guide in our ebook, “Master Moderating for Consumer Connections.”

4. Research and Analyze the Results

After making the necessary steps to prepare, it’s time to get front and center with users. Leveraging a platform like Discuss.io makes conducting qualitative research easy with agile features like screen sharing, virtual white boards and a “save moment” feature that allows moderators or observers to highlight key quotes instantly.

In addition, a dedicated back room built into the live video platform allows you to bring teams along for the ride. With separate chat features, no longer will moderators toggle back and forth between apps to scoop up important comments or probes. Innovations like these, combined with live, global tech support ensure that each session runs flawlessly.

In the past, researchers would create extensive spreadsheets, manually copying and pasting each line of a transcribed interview. It was then either digitally tagged by theme, or printed out and categorized in a card sorting exercise. While rigorous, these methods are extremely time-consuming. Your research, in contrast, can be streamlined through a purpose-built platform like Discuss.io, delivering a treasure trove of quotes, videos, and candid responses, with immediate ways to analyze and share the findings.

The Discuss.io platform automatically transcribes and analyzes each interview theme and sentiment, helping researchers dive into analysis more efficiently. The platform’s built-in tagging and clipping capabilities enable researchers to isolate key clips as easily as highlighting in a word document.

After you’ve organized the data, identify key themes both within and among segments — think back to the sections of the persona you’ll need to fill and the team hypotheses you’ll need to affirm or refute. Among the many features of Discuss.io’s Augmented Insights (AI), researchers use Theme Identification to analyze keywords using Natural Language Processing (NLP), generating word clouds and themes from large numbers of videos across the project.

Finally, when starting to craft your personas, words matter. Strive for clarity and economy of language as personas can loose their utility if too many details are included. Home in on the exact information you need, then synthesize it in a brief but compelling way.

Once you’ve got a handle on what you want to say, it’s time to put it into a layout. Powerpoint, Canva and even online whiteboards like Mural offer easy and accessible formats for shared use among teams. Companies like Smaply take personas one step further with automated templates that connect to digital journey maps.

Whatever your path is, remember to keep it simple. This is not the time to pull out all the fancy fonts, colors, or decorative backgrounds. Instead, strive for clarity, simplicity and ease of understanding.

5. Share with the Team

When a persona is only used by one team or department, it doesn’t create the alignment needed to bring consumer-centricity across an organization. Always remember to share your findings broadly. Often, it’s not enough to unveil the personas once — prompt other teams to give a persona a seat at the table by asking questions like, “What would [persona name] do,” or, “How might we bring value to them.” By connecting questions directly to personas, it guides the team into considering which option would have the most positive impact on the desired target.

Because people are constantly changing consumer behavior, growing out of old buying patterns, and adapting to new market trends, creating user personas is often an ongoing process.

Qualitative research can help in not only creating a great user persona, but ensuring it stays up-to-date with users’ changing needs. Whether you’re creating new personas or refreshing those that already exist, Discuss.io’s turnkey, purpose-built conversation platform empowers qualitative research at scale.

Contact us to get a demo today.

Sign Up for our Newsletter