Using personas in your design thinking framework is important, but are the results satisfying and clear? In this article, Product Innovation Manager Alex Igor Sanghikian discusses the Adjacent Possibilities framework for product management. By exclusively focusing on your persona’s one main need and trying hard to fulfill that need with your product, you can build the next feature with a more focused vision.

I first heard about building personas for a product around 10 years ago while developing web news portals. Since then, this kind of communication need has been taken over by Flipboard, Facebook, and many others.

A lot has changed. Fortunately, industries have stopped (at least most of the time) building products according to the ideas and desires of highly ranked executives and started prototyping based on the needs of who really matters: the customer.

Even today with new frameworks such as Design Sprint and others, I still have to deal with some of the same challenges I had 10 years ago. One great example is the process of building personas. Inside the agile environment with new techniques to validate our hypothesis we have to go through this same step to understand the customers and validate their needs. This process is very important, but it takes time and on several occasions I couldn’t find the real connection between the personas and the final product (when compared with the first idea that gave birth to the project).

The importance of personas

My argument is not to get rid of this process in a product design framework—not at all. Building personas is nothing more than trying to get closer to your customer and understand their needs. In order for this to be possible you must really listen to them. Alternatively we have to brainstorm ideas to build this singular customer, with no real connection with them. It’s clear that this is not the best solution.

Some of the reasons for using personas are:

Sometimes we list so many needs that when it comes time to prioritize them we forget about the customer’s pain.

  • Create empathy for your customer;
  • Better understand their needs;
  • Be able to classify your customers represented by a few fictional characters.

Using adjacent possibilities

Despite its importance, the process of creating personas nowadays is not as useful as it should be. After the persona creation stage, the next step in most design thinking processes is brainstorming. The ideas that come out are not necessarily attached to the persona’s greatest needs. Much worse, sometimes we list so many needs that when it comes time to prioritize them we forget about the customer’s pain.

My point is that we should understand the importance of the adjacent possibilities framework for product management. The idea was first developed by Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist that argues that the evolutionary process of homo sapiens has been driven by the development of one adjacent possible biological need at a time. The person who brought this idea to the concept of digital products was James McQuivey with his digital disruption work.

One of the thoughts in this line of work is that in order to reach your new adjacent possibilities (it’s not easy) you have to understand the last and very next need of your customer. That means focusing hard on the problem you have to meet next. Companies like Sonos and Logitech that work with the concept of distributing music throughout the house are listed by McQuivey as good examples of this.

Focus on their main need

Now, back to the personas discussion; In order to address a customer’s next need those companies have to be a step ahead of the competition, particularly when the question at hand is understanding the customer’s pain. When you design your personas you have to list most of their needs and meet them with your product, right? That way we come up with a lot of ideas and most of the time a new product, even if we already have one.

All the information that we get from our personas may be a distraction when it comes time to think about their needs.

But what if we focus on that one main need exclusively and try hard to fulfill it with the product? This way it’s possible to build a stronger bridge between your personas and your next feature. Focus on your actual customer and on what really hurts them now, even if it seems small or obvious. Sometimes, all the information that we get from our personas may be a distraction when it comes time to think about their needs. We lack focus.

After we list all the needs and learn from the customer’s input, what will your next adjacent possible innovation be? Using this methodology, it’s best to get rid of all the other information you have and try to build your next feature with the exclusive focus on one single need.

That would be one next step on this framework of building your personas and reinventing your product. Of course this is not an exact recipe for success, but it may definitely be worth trying. What do you think?

By Alex Igor Sanghikian

About the author

Alex Igor Sanghikian is the Product Innovation Manager at the Albert Einstein Hospital in Brazil, one of the most important hospitals in Latin America and the world. Alex graduated in Communication, with a Masters in Marketing and MBA in Strategic Management. He has more than 10 years of experience in digital product development in segments such as health, financial and consumer goods. Alex helped to develop award-winning products such as financial and health apps, lead generation programs and corporate portals. He is always looking for learning experiences and sharing knowledge.