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Provisional Personas: The Black Sheep of the Persona Family

Personalsby Heather Searl

In the last few years, it seems that personas have gotten a bad rap. And in some UX circles, mentioning a provisional persona might get bring you some serious grief.

Provisional personas (AKA ad-hoc personas, or proto-personas) sound like a recipe for disaster. They are based on little or no research, but rely on intuition and company beliefs—everything that can lead to a pointless persona. Many user experience professionals hate even the thought of them.

And yet – when done and used properly – they can serve a purpose.

The key word in that last sentence is “properly”.

When Provisional Personas are Appropriate

User experience personas are a focus tool. They are used to develop solutions and workflows that meet the needs of real people while weeding out ideas that sound great but don’t serve any real purpose for the end user.

Provisional personas are useful when (and possibly only when) there are many differing views and a lot of dissent about who the end user is – and no budget for research.

Let me make that clear. They are not a replacement for well researched, properly built personas, and should only be used when discussions keep coming to a halt because people can’t agree on who the target users are and what their goals and work flows are.

In those cases, provisional personas can serve a purpose and are legitimately used two ways:

  • To build consensus about the types of people and behaviours you THINK exist, so you can figure out where to focus your user research
  • To drive consensus and focus the entire team on one or more user types when there is a lot of dissent about the user and there isn’t time or money to do the research required to create real personas. (And if you still can’t get to consensus someone has to say, “Tough noogies, these personas represent the people we want to design for, so live with it,”).

Provisional personas should never be given the same weight as a well researched persona. It should be clear to everyone on the team that the persona is only a best guess scenario intended to create some focus for the team.

Creating Provisional Personas

Creating provisional personas shouldn’t be an intensive drawn out task. You’ll quickly reach the end of what you know (and what you think you know) and continuing to guess and debate after that won’t get you any closer to the truth.

1. To start, gather any information you have about your target audience.
2. Put together a small team of open-minded people who understand and represent the differing views that exist about the end user.

    • This may be second-hand research, out of date research, marketing research that doesn’t directly address design issues, anecdotal information etc.

3. Share all of the existing information with the team
4. Get the team together and determine the key things you need to understand about your target audience to make good design decisions
5. Brainstorm the personas and their approach to the issues you want to further understand.
6. Base this brainstorming on the information at hand and your own intuition. In your brainstorming include:

    • The user’s goals for the products
    • How the user accomplishes the work now
    • The user’s frustrations with existing products and workflows
    • The environment the product will be used in

7. Don’t overdo provisional persona detail.

    • They don’t need a cat, three kids and a poor golf swing to be effective.
    • Stick to your best guess at the things that are relevant to the project at hand
    • If there is a lot of uncertainty about an area, make a best guess and move on
    • Feel free to make it clear that this is a best guess right in the persona

8. Stick to the most important types of users

    • Don’t create an elaborate suite of personas that cover every possibility
    • That will leave you no better off when you start design discussions than you would be without the personas

9. Differentiate provisional personas from well researched personas in your organization in some way

    • This could be done by using a caricature in place of a photo or using a clichéd name

10. Test the personas by showing them to people and getting feedback. Ask questions like:

    • Does this feel like users you’ve encountered for this product?
    •  Is anything unbelievable in the persona?
    • Do the attitudes, goals and workflows described seem likely?

The provisional personas should seem real and make sense to people. It shouldn’t come off as a total caricature with a perfect life or insurmountable problems.  If the personas feel this way to some of your reviewers, regroup and figure out why.

Using Provisional Personas

Provisional personas should be used with a grain of salt. Make sure the entire team is aware that the persona is not built on solid data.

If something isn’t making sense as you get further into the design go back and question the assumptions.

But at the same time, don’t throw out the persona when someone doesn’t like it. It’s the best guess you have at who your target user is, and as such will help you stay focused on a cohesive design.


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Photo courtesy of Gary Barber via Flickr.

heathersearl-newHeather is a user experience consultant and freelance writer who believes in doing everything from a user-centric point of view. She has 20+ years of experience in high tech and is well-versed in helping product management and development teams get to know their customers, understand usability issues and turn these insights into design innovations.

Heather can be reached at www.commconsulting.com or on Twitter as HeatherSearl.