A while ago, I started seeing this chart floating around the internet that categorizes things based on good vs. evil and lawful vs. chaotic. Apparently, I was not hardcore nerd enough to recognize that the chart was from the game Dungeons and Dragons. And the hilarious thing is that this chart seems to be able to group all sorts of things and people in an intuitive way. You can even take a quiz to find out which group you fall into.

I think one of the reasons that this chart is so popular is because human brains love patterns and ways of organizing pieces of information. From psychology research we know that if you have some type of mental framework for organizing information, like a schema or a story, it is suddenly way easier to remember that information, process that information, figure out whether a new piece of information belongs, etc.  

If you have ever been looking at data about your own customers, donors, alumni, etc. and wished that you had some way to organize all the information about them, you might be interested in personas. Personas are essentially a mental framework we develop to help you understand the data. You create “characters” based on data about their goals, behaviors, attitudes, etc. Here is an example of one of the personas that we created for the Colorado Nonprofit Association in 2014:

If you are interested in personas, there are a couple things to note:

  • One, there is not necessarily an industry definition of what a persona is, and thus, there are many different ways to create them. We like to say that they are part art, part science.
  • Two, not everyone uses data to create them. I once overheard a company explaining how they create them without data. Basically, they had people at the organization create personas of their customers based on what they thought their customers were like. Not only is this a recipe for creating inaccurate stereotypes of your own customers, but also it is really difficult to create personas of potential customers. You might have some sense of who your customers are because you see them and/or talk to them. You have much less information about people who are not your customers.
  • Three, you can build personas out of a variety of different types of data. We’ve had projects where we created personas based on focus group data. We’ve had other projects where we created personas based on survey data.
  • Four, while there is no set way to create personas, you want the end product to be meaningful and useful. You don’t want so many personas that it is overwhelming, and you don’t want to create personas based on unimportant data. For this reason, we work closely with our clients to figure out which set of personas would be most useful to them.

Two other things that I’ve learned while creating personas is that first, personas are a useful way of thinking about research findings, even for “data people”. It’s often a handy way to get your head around a lot of data. And second, personas are a great way to refresh a repeat project. If you’ve been surveying your key audience for a while and feel like you aren’t getting anything new out of the data, you might consider creating personas with the data. Sometimes that fresh analysis can spark some new thoughts and ideas.