It amazes me how many companies really don't know who their customer is. They may have a general idea, but they don't really know. How can you run a business without knowing your target user?
A market is made up of many people with the same general set of needs. Understanding those needs is a great first step. It is all about identifying where the major pain points are. This is a must to identifying a major market opportunity. But just understanding critical needs is often not enough.
The adage of 'knowing your customer' is brought into reality with user personas. A user persona is a profile of one of your target users. User personas are quite valuable because they give you many pieces of information that you can overlook if you only focus on customer needs. True, the information is somewhat stereotypical, but nevertheless, it allows you to see these users in a new light.
I like to include the following information when I build user personas (these are more for B2B markets):
For a consumer market, the information might be a little different. The key is to provide a profile of a user type that is representative of at least one of your users to help you better understand them.
There is a second part to personas. That is doing what I like to call a 'day in the life' of the persona. This takes the information of the persona to another level. Here you can see things they do during a typical day and the context where they have major pain.
Combining this information together, you can start seeing things you might otherwise miss. You might only see one aspect of their needs without this data. But with this information, you can learn a much deeper set of needs. For example, if you sell a technology product, you can learn how comfortable this persona feels with technology in general. You may see they not only need your solution, but they need it presented in a very simple and easy to use manner. If you only consider the need you may build a solution that is quite powerful but completely unusable to this target user.
If you really dig in to understanding your customers, you will generally find you have more than one persona. At one company I worked for, we found we had about seven personas. These were different people that were involved in providing a service to specific customers. All seven had different jobs, different roles and responsibilities and different areas of focus. To deliver an effective solution, we found that we needed to assist all seven with our product. Initially, we only thought of the main one or two users of the system, but this dramatically limited the value of the product. When we began including all the major role players in the whole ecosystem, our solution became much more powerful.
If you really want to gain benefit from your personas, print them out at a poster size and pin them up where your employees will see them. This is especially true for the people responsible for designing and building your products. You will find the user persona can have tremendous value to helping you deliver success products and services to your customers.