How to Make Proto-Personas and Get Everyone on the Same Page

How many times have you been midway through a project and asked yourself, “Why are we doing this?” or “Will anyone actually use this?” Projects can be very expensive – they often require significant capital and resource investments. We focus on doing the right work. We incorporated proto-personas into our client onboarding to bolster our user-centered design process.

Proto-personas are an ad hoc, non-research-backed articulation of a customer archetype. We learned about this process in UX Magazine and were so excited about it that we tried it ourselves! In this article, we’ll share our insights on how to approach the beginning of a website or product design engagement and achieve optimal results. If what we have to say resonates, you can even have a free copy of our proto-persona template to run this exercise at your organization.

The Goals of Proto-Personas

The Goals of Proto-Personas

Agencies are usually hired to design a product or website. Without time allocated to assess and respond to emerging user needs, simply knocking out a project is awfully short-sighted. We provide our clients with an awesome mix of business acumen, design mojo, and developer magic. Proto-personas are an excellent way to shift focus from the anticipated final product to the end-user for whom we’re designing this <thing>.

We rely on proto-personas to ensure the alignment amongst our client stakeholders. This exercise allows all relevant parties to have their say; we often create a dozen or more initial archetypes and have healthy discussions to settle on which is the most important… and why. The process brings clarity and focuses to the project (notwithstanding the inevitable tangents that arise while recounting their personified qualities).

As a client onboarding practice, this two-session, multi-step exercise proves invaluable to project success by providing us with amazing insights into customers’ needs, company objectives, and challenges ahead. Everyone who needs a say gets a say. Being able to witness the internal debates allows you an opportunity to more thoroughly understand how the client’s organization is structured — and how their business model or industry operates — before moving into the details of design output.

We become better partners through proto-personas, which require transparency, honesty, and 8 hours of client time.

Read also: The Importance Of Being Weird

Creating Proto-Personas

Our process involves two separate meetings. Each meeting takes 3-4 hours, depending on the number of participants. The goal of the first meeting is to identify all of the possible personas to target. This is an opportunity for everyone to get involved in articulating who the target audience is, what their needs are, and how they behave. The second meeting gives the entire team (yes, bring all the project stakeholders back in) a chance to review our work and refine the highest priority archetypes. As a segue into the next step of our design process, we also begin to discuss information architecture.

STEP 1: Character Development

Character Development

This step should take about an hour. You’ll need several sheets of blank paper and a bunch of markers. A proto-persona has four quadrants: Biography & Picture, Demographics, Needs & Goals, and Behaviors. Each person should create at least three personas (hint: look for overlap later — that’s an indicator of alignment). This usually takes about 15-20 minutes.

We like to encourage everyone in the room to think about the people they interact with on a regular basis. The process goes much smoother once the participants focus on a ‘real’ person. For instance, if I were designing an application for YouTubers, I might choose Tyler Oakley.

STEP 2: Meet the Cast

Once everyone has had a chance to draw up their personas, it’s time to make introductions! Depending on the number of personas drawn, you may need up to two hours to get through all of them. The goal of this segment is for everyone in the room to get familiar with the broader landscape of people in their company’s business; there are probably a lot more people involved than anyone realizes.

Simply go round-robin to each person and have each person stand up and introduce their personified user. Each person should explain the motivations, goals, and (unmet) needs for each of their personas. Keep it casual; there are often hidden gems in the playful banter that comes out during this portion of the proto-persona process. Be sure to record any insights or adjustments in real-time.

STEP 3: Character Refinement

We recommend letting the group take a quick break before beginning this segment. After a couple of intense hours, most folks’ minds start to wander. Give everyone a chance to use the restroom, check emails, or maybe grab a donut. In the interim, the moderator should tape the proto-personas on the wall, and draw five spectrum lines on a whiteboard.

In this segment, the goal is to rank each persona based on different traits. You may want to focus on their personality type, their influence in the organization, or the size of their network. Really, it could be anything you want. It’s often helpful (though not easy) to discuss this with the group to get collective buy-in on what is most important to the project at hand.

Once you’re done with this segment of the exercise, you’ll have a whiteboard filled with notes, and some patterns will be obvious. Look out for opportunities to consolidate similar personas and deprioritize others. If you end up with more than three(ish) you’re probably doing too much at once; focus on the most-important persona first but respect that there are others not to alienate.

Designing with Proto-Personas in Mind

Target personas help remove individual biases from the equation. They provide a foundation for the agency and client stakeholders to focus on. Leveraging these can inform everything from Information Architecture to color palette. Depending on the results from the first session we determine how to proceed.

Another exercise we like to do with our clients is a “Persona Map.” Once we have a working draft of the sitemap, we collaborate with our clients to create a matrix of each persona and try to answer the following questions:

  • What was their objective in visiting the <client> website?
  • How did they get here?
  • Where did they land?
  • Where will they go next?
  • What is <client>’s opportunity?

After our personas are agreed upon and the persona map is completed, our immediate and long-term goals are more clear. This helps generate unity between our organizations and boosts confidence in the quality of the solution concept.

Another helpful exercise is a design studio, where we once again bring all of the project stakeholders into the room to brainstorm the best possible design solution. Design studios can be run in a number of different ways, but the gist is to articulate a problem, allow each person to brainstorm and draw independently, and then share their ideas with the group and receive feedback. The team then votes on the best ideas. Again, everyone has a chance to weigh in… and there’s a clear winner to move into prototyping.

The Importance of Validation

The Importance of Validation

Proto-personas are just scratching the surface of user research. We’ve found them to be a great tool to help us get up to speed quickly, and gain alignment among executives. But it’s critical to validate those assumptions on an ongoing basis. As markets shift, products mature, and customers age, it’s not uncommon for the target user to look wholly different a year later.

There are many techniques you can use to validate your persona. Try a tool like Qualaroo to get short, simple answers from your users. Or perhaps offer a gift card in exchange for a survey response that includes details like job titles and satisfaction level with the product. Asking your users for direct feedback is a great way to learn more about them — and can actually increase engagement.

Design is an Iterative Process

Ideas might seem good on the surface, but they can always be made simpler, better, and more effective. This collaborative exercise sets a great precedent for the rest of your project: Proto-personas involve all the stakeholders and force tough decisions to be made. As an agency, we present and iterate countless times as we design and develop meaningful experiences. Each time, we learn more about our clients, their customers, and how to best craft a solution for their needs.

Ruben Harutyunyan

Back to top