For this post, we’d like to offer you a friendly product management reminder, because we all need these types of refreshers now and then.

As a product manager, you are building products for an actual person—not a representation of a person.

Sounds obvious, right? But it’s easier than you might realize to lose sight of the flesh-and-blood people who are and will be using your products—and instead become too focused on your user personas.

Don’t Rely Too Heavily on Your User Personas. It’s in the US Constitution! (Well, Sort of.)

For a helpful metaphor about the risks of relying too heavily on your written personas, let’s look at criminal law.

Based on the “Confrontation Clause” of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, most criminal courts will not allow a witness’s statement from outside the court to be read into evidence at a trial. This is usually the case even if the witness gave the statement under oath in some other legal forum—in a pre-trial deposition, for example.

Why? In a strict legal sense, it’s because the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to confront (cross-examine) witnesses against them. If a prosecutor simply reads a witnesses’ statement or a transcription from his deposition into evidence, the defendant has no opportunity to cross-examine that witness, to challenge his claims, or raise questions about his reliability, memory, or biases.

But in a broader sense, this legal principle means that the law recognizes the only fair way to get the whole story is to have the actual witness—not just a piece of paper representing something the witness said—speak at the trial.

Which brings us back to you, your customers, and your written user personas.

So How Should Your User Personas Fit in?

There are plenty of thoughtful, intelligent strategies to determine if your product idea is a winner and to prioritize new features for your existing products. Some of these strategies will involve market research and analyzing data, others will involve learning directly from your customers and prospects, and still others will lean heavily on your intuition.

But to the extent that you learn from your customers and prospects about what belongs in your strategic product roadmap, that process should involve a lot more than simply reviewing your written persona for ideas and inspiration. You also need to get out there and learn from interacting with your customers.

This customer research process might look something like this: You regularly interact with your prospective and actual customers, and you use what you learn from these interactions to update your user personas. Then and you use both direct customer interactions and your user personas to guide your product strategy and your roadmap.

You cannot skip the regular step of speaking with (or at least observing) your users directly, and simply treat your written user persona as a stand-in for your actual customers, for two reasons.

Why You Must Supplement Your User Personas with Direct Customer Interaction

  1. One obvious reason not to depend too heavily on a written persona is that (like a witness’s disembodied statement) it’s just a summary. It can’t provide all of the nuances or quirks or little ingenious insights an actual flesh-and-person user will give you if you speak directly with her.
  2. A second, less-obvious reason you can’t rely on your personas is that these written summaries are static (unless you update them). Everything else in your environment—your product, your customers themselves, the realities of your market—is dynamic and always changing. In other words, the truths captured in your user personas will atrophy.

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5 Tips to Keep Your Written Personas Refreshed with Feedback from Actual Users and Prospects

Okay, we’ve made our point: You need to be regularly learning directly from your customers, which is the only way to get the true picture of what they want—and, besides, it’s the only way to keep your written personas fresh and up to date.

But what if you’re not already doing that? What if you don’t have a process in place to get out there on a regular basis and interact with your target users? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Sit in on a support call.

Here’s a great way to see how your users are actually engaging with your product (warts and all). You’ll hear how a customer describes her experience with your product (language is a helpful guide into your customer’s thinking), you’ll get to see how your support rep helps the customer (which can also give you insights for improving the product), and you’ll even have the chance to ask that customer a question or two about the product in general.

2. Join a sales call.

What’s great about sitting in on sales calls is that you’ll have the chance to interact directly with a target user for your product who might not buy it. It’s easy to spend all of your time with the people who’ve already purchased your product, but feedback from that group can be skewed and not give you an accurate picture of your broader market.

On a sales call, you can hear firsthand what prospects’ objections are, and what aspects of your products or pricing or service confuse them or leave them dissatisfied.

Learning about your product’s shortcomings can generate a gold mine of insights and ideas—and you’ll never find these answers by staring at a user persona, no matter how well it’s written.

3. Send out user surveys.

You’ll need to be careful not to overdo this one; surveys are a great way to learn directly from your customers, but you don’t want to undermine your company’s relationship with them by becoming a nag.

Still, a few questions in a survey every now and then should yield some useful insights from your users, assuming you craft those questions effectively.

4. Ask to chat with a customer.

People liked to be asked for their opinions.

And yet, many PMs avoid simply contacting a customer directly and asking if they have a few minutes to chat about the product.

As with the surveys, you don’t want to overdo this one and become an intrusion or overstay your welcome. You can’t ask a customer to set aside hours to speak with you. But you can ask for a few minutes. And believe it or not, many will say yes—they might even feel honored that you chose them to offer their thoughts and critiques.

5. Do at least one of the above—maybe once a month.

Finally, to ensure you don’t let your written user personas become stale, outdated relics that grow increasingly counterproductive, you should try to build one of these customer-interaction steps (or others, if you have different methods you prefer) into your routine on a regular basis.

Maybe you want to find a way to speak directly with a customer or prospective customer (or just listen and observe, such as on a sales call) at least once every month. Or maybe more frequently, if you can find the time and you’d like to gather more real-world feedback.

Whichever approach you use to get in front of your customers and target users, you’ll find that none of these interactions are ever wasted. A product manager can always take away something valuable from these meetings.

But if you take only one thing from this post, let it be our original reminder: Your users aren’t written personas. They’re people.