Hats off to CalSTRS, for hiring Cooper Design in San Francisco to do qualitative research on its members. We are excited to phase into a new relationship with CalSTRS as a design resource, in addition to several good in-house and contracted designers. As CalSTRS is one of the largest pension funds in the world, the volume of member communications can be potentially staggering. Determining the target audience, the message, and the point are all critical to the ultimate goal of ‘being of service to the members’.

Enter ‘Personas’. [from Wikipedia]
Personas are fictional characters created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic, attitude and/or behavior set that might use a site, brand or product in a similar way.

Cooper’s month long interviews of 75 members across the state yielded five personas. Each at a different point in his/her career, at a different level of financial interest and sophistication, and a different need for segments of CalSTRS’ services. We love their approach and it was a pleasure to see it done methodically at a large scale.

The personas were of five different teachers:

  • a young woman, married and busy with a family, who is not the financially-attentive person in the household
  • a mid-career woman; single parent and struggling financially because her ex-husband lost his job
  • a mid-40’s man who made a career change into teaching, bringing existing retirement money and financial savvy
  • a late-career woman, who is trying to figure out the best timing for retirement
  • a retired community college teacher, whose benefits are defined by the years of service and dollars contributed — and who must manage his accounts from a different perspective.

Bringing this Home for Our Clients

We were impressed with the professionalism and thoroughness of the Cooper team. As Phil and I walked away from the meeting we mused how fun it would be to create ‘personas’ for our clients. The reality is we do a ‘lite’ version of this for our clients on each project. We don’t have degrees in anthropology, statistics or psychology and our clients generally need to work within a tighter budget, but we do keep a strong focus on the target audience throughout our process.

We meet with clients from marketing managers to small business owners on a daily basis. At the launch of each project we ask “Who is the audience? Who are the likely buyers? Who would benefit from this, or be moved by this information?” When the answer is “everybody!”, we know there is digging to be done. At that point, designing for ‘everybody’ will mean design for ‘nobody’. Keeping the target audience at the forefront of design and strategy is crucial to making each project successful.


Having shared this idea with my sister, who recently signed up to collect Social Security, it sounds like the SSA could benefit from customized messages to well defined target audiences. She’s received several mailings of multi-page letters that drone on, difficult to read and identify the important points. As an attorney, she had the stamina to actually read the pages, and still had trouble understanding them. In this age of information overload, clarity is critical!