illustration of User persona
As many of us are already familiar with User personas being the first step of any UX project, it’s worth diving deeper to first understand why that is. In the effort of seeking genuine empathy with our Users, persona mapping gets too often created with assumptions from the office building which is fine as a starting point but it fails to get validated from real users ( which works against the mission of evidence-based design process). Quite often time pressures lead to creating one after a few interviews with PM and gets started with solutioning to meet deadlines. In this article we are outlining ways to practice creating ‘proto-personas’ on the fly and progressively backing it up with evidence so that it serves its key role in guiding us throughout the design process with evidence and removing assumptions.
Why evidenced-based  Vs. assumptions?
Best to define what we mean by ‘Assumptions’ as this term trips up people frequently. They are anything that is outside of facts which can be supported with supporting resource or evidence ( stats, resource materials, survey results, interviews from Users). This would mean someone’s opinion of years of being in the industry would fall into that category along with ‘gut instincts’. Assumptions are indeed very helpful to get started as we later go out on field to validate them (to be true/false) and helps shave quite a chunk of time in fact. Best to declare them as assumptions from the start to distinguish from facts. The idea is that you may start with assumptions but they must get tested on the field as facts otherwise they can lead teams into a rabbit-hole with zero returns.
Facts or evidence-based information on who our users are, their deep behavioural patterns simply cuts out the guessing game from the equation & eliminates risk of going in the wrong direction (in decisions, feature ideas, and so on). It would save weeks, months, and years of production effort from misguided decisions in product design.
Choose a path: ethnographic research or proto-personas 
If your organisation has the time & resources with proper training to run an ethnographic research then you should consider it. It’s ideal for high profile user-centered design projects if executed with best practices from start to finish. Key advantage is that it ensures projects are based on facts from the start. For more common scenarios though, UXers deal with tight timelines, dropped into projects in various stages– then Proto-personas methodology is recommended which this article will be focused on.
We borrow the prefix “proto’ from ‘prototypes’ and mashed it up with the term “User Persona” resulting in  “Proto-personas”. Just like prototyping, it is rough draft & meant to be seen as a temporal solution or an iteration, always getting updated & improved upon continuously. This is big since many User personas are “one & done” affairs where they cease to become relevant unfortunately. Proto-personas are used as living documents which get updated as soon as new data or facts come in to add (or replace) its contents. In effect, they are the artifacts or visual representations of the team’s understanding as they mature in authentic empathy with Users. The boards may have started with assumptions but are concluded by evidence & facts, this is key.
Engaging cross-functional colleagues
As the UXer & facilitator of workshops, invite PMs, engineers, customer service reps, and other cross-disciplinary colleagues who’d have stakes in the project or are domain experts. They will provide the variety of POV which will add plenty of depth to the work while helping you formulate the assumptions (and discover some facts as well).
In the fact the true value of Proto-personas are shown first-hand in this workshop: everyone contributes to putting up assumptions & gets to challenge each others’ opinions and land with a shared understanding within the same session. As long as evidence-based validation follow up with it, the outcome of that shared understanding is going to motivate & engage your colleagues throughout the project duration. It’s highly likely those assumptions are approx. 70-80% correct and guides UXers to discover more insights to complete the full view.
Customer service representatives (CS support) are in the front-lines having conversations with actual customers full-time; without a doubt they can be great sources for mapping out frustrations & motivations in the personas chart.
The quadrants in each persona maps
In Jeff Gothelf’s excellent book Lean UX, he’s streamlined the below 4 quadrants from the well-known Empathy Map. Each Persona chart is comprised of 4 quadrants:
proto-persona board sample
Any data or insights which indicates demographic info such as age, education, job title/role, income bracket, lifestyle choices, etc.
Insights into what he/she does in context to the product/service; this can be specific tasks the User understates at work, responsibilities which represents their typical day.
Experts say that our subconscious mind & emotions dictate more than 80% of decisions made (personal/professional). The 2 strongest emotions are love & hate above all. So any insights into what motivates us & frustrates us are jotted down in this quadrant.    
Says / Quotes
What people say & direct quotes are great indicators on behavioral studies (and can feed patterns into what they think & feel). It’s best to note that what people “say” and what they actually “do” can be different from one other.
sample proto-persona board
Using colors / validating & iterating continuously
Commonly in workshops these quadrants are filled up with assumptions by the participants. For best practice apply assumptions with a distinct color consistently while apply a separate color for facts. Once facts come in validate the assumptions with facts by replacing the post-its with facts (over the assumptions). The goal is to replace the assumptions with as much facts in the subsequent days, week, or months.
Common traps

It’s not uncommon that organizations opt to outsource this task to an external agency. The issue with this is that most agencies come from advertising backgrounds and approach this akin to market research study resulting in a broad demographic study rather than a UX research focused on behavioral patterns. Each project or a service warrants more in-depth look with context being key. As you’ve noticed, demographic data only serves 1/4 of the persona chart, while “Think/Feels” & “Does” quadrants are deeper understanding which can be extracted best with User research.

The most common failures of all is the “one & done” trap, where Personas mapping is done at the start of the project and seldom validated or updated throughout the process. A worst case scenario would be teams starting with assumptions and the org moves on to the solution-ing step with feature ideas from it. Best practice here would be to continually update the boards throughout lifespan of the project/service/product as the evidence rolls in. Typically a glossy & graphically designed persona maps were done once and deserted. In contrast, a rough & dynamic persona maps which serves as a living document has far more value than the first. Keeping with the concept of Proto-persona, each iteration is superior and more relevant than than the previous iterations.
Persona boards which are NOT accessible/visible serve very little. This usually happens with a PDF of the personas hidden inside a folder on some cloud storage, rotting away. Rather, having the boards pinned on exposed walls in offices which can draw plenty of eyeballs to them, invites cross-functional to review & contribute would be ideal. Some mature UX orgs who understand this fully have even created Persona rooms where anyone from the org can enter and view, touch and experience the data.

Personas don’t represent users. They represent users’ goals. If you can’t reduce the number of goals of your user community down to very few, you don’t understand your users, your product, your business, or interaction design.

Alan Cooper
Proto-personas is a ‘compass’ which UXers rely on to guide through the design process. Typically we get lost or set off in the wrong direction at times, the Personas guides us back to making the products to be usable.  Yes– we can design experiences or products without personas (or weak ones) as doctors can try to attend to patients without his devices and go on instinct solely but that would be unprofessional for them (as failure  & malpractice is imminent). For UXers to bring out their “A-game”, we’d need the best available aids & tools in order to operate. 

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