Personas at CPW: Customer Interaction

Cognitive Policy Works (CPW) is a public policy think tank founded by core members of the Rockridge Institute. As part of position as an adjunct, I used personas to help CPW redefined how they interacted with their customers.

Cognitive Policy Works (CPW) is a public policy think tank founded by core members of the Rockridge Institute.  As part of my job as an adjunct position, I used Tamara Adlin‘s ad-hoc personas to help CPW redefined how they interacted with their customers.

Engineering Simplicity

Remember manually saving documents?  When creating a user interface, system builders often simply expose the underlying functionality of their system, such as the “save” function of a file system.  From the builder’s perspective, exposing functionality directly is not only the easiest solution but the “simplest.”

However, having to “save” a document every 5 minutes  is not simple for the user.  Indeed, this inconvenience turns into a nightmare when the application crashes: users they expect their work to be protected.

Engineering how your customers interface with your product requires abstracting different backend systems in service of the user’s needs.  Personas are a way of getting teams to think about the backend in terms of the user’s needs.


Developing personas begins as a teambuilding exercise, a way to get everyone on a team to understand how their respective roles impact the user experience as a whole.  Features and tasks are placed on a grid on a board and stakeholders are given a certain number of points which they assign to a scoreboard containing each feature and user need. By the end of the exercise the team shares a common understanding of the user’s needs.

After the consensus building exercise, the team creates individual usability “personas” that represent different types of users.  Each persona is then weighted according to their strategic importance. This often leads to epiphanies about the user interaction with the company as a whole.

Cognitive Policy Works had a persona representing activists, academics, NGO executives, and other types of users.  Being comprised of academics and activists, the website had largely catered towards these users.  However, the strategic evaluation showed that they needed to cater to the needs of NGO executives and political campaigners.

We had been spending most of our energy on the least valuable users.

-Joe Brewer, director of Cognitive Policy Works

Ad-hoc personas are oriented around managerial buy-in, but validating them with real data is crucial. Data can invalidate existing beliefs, surface needs the team hadn’t thought of, and give weight to something that can feel like yet-another-managerial-exercise. After interviewing customers and surveying website visitors, it turned out that one of CPW’s personas was ill defined and removed, needs of other users were adjusted, and real quotes were used to augmented the personas.

Once the different personas are established, an fictional biographic sketch is created for each persona, complete with names, quotes and unprofessional snapshots of real people: the biographies push team members think about users as real people.  This keeps discussion oriented around user interactions and user’s needs, a bulkhead against regression into thinking in terms of features and departmental functions.

Virginia is the NGO executive persona created for Cognitive Policy Works.

Persona stock photo

Virginia has held jobs as a chief of staff for Maria Cantwell’s reelection campaign, director for the American Teachers Union, and is currently an executive at the World Wildlife Fund, and has even dabbled in managing private companies. She doesn’t need want long explanations on theory: she wants proven stuff. That means proof that a technique has a track record of working.

Virginia’s Needs

Mix of invented and real quotes from customers,

  • I need an expert to sit on a board and advise about campaign strategy.
  • I need a partner in a marketing effort to help the Democratic Party get more wins.
  • When I say I want “frame analysis” I really mean that I need someone to legitimize change within my organization.
  • I was CC’d in an email to my CEO suggesting CPW’s consulting.

Strategic Evaluation

Strategic Value 25*
Not Happy?** 35*
Current Revenue 80%
Potential Revenue large
Current Traffic 2%
Potential Size small
*Weighted score out of 100 points distributed across 4 personas.
**”If we don’t make this person ridiculously happy, we have failed.”


Virginia Persona 4
Virginia Persona 3
Virginia Persona 2
Virginia Persona 1

All persona images are CC BY-NC-ND, Pedro Côrte-Real.