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Personas vs. Proto-Personas

When building digital products, software and websites, the designers and developers must always consider the user, but who is this person? Personas, in their many varieties, are what are typically used by UX professionals to represent groups of users.

A persona is a tool that User Experience (UX) Designers use to maintain alignment with all members of a team on a website or digital project. They serve the purpose of helping to orient a project and can be used to help make informed decisions when user goals are called into question. A persona is defined as a representation of a specific type of user or customer, and it answers the question “who are we designing for?”

Alan Cooper, author of About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design defines a persona as being “based on the behaviors and motivations of real people we have observed and represent them throughout the design process. They are composite archetypes based on behavioral data gathered from the many actual users encountered in ethnographic interviews.”

One way to interpret the definition of a true persona is that essentially a model that represents a large group of similar users, similar to a stereotype in social sciences. However, unlike stereotypes that are based on racial generalities, true personas are based on ethnographic research, user interviews, and user observation. The purpose of this data gathering is so that the UX professionals building a digital product can make accurate and informed decisions. That being said, sometimes the upfront cost to do the research and create true personas can be daunting when starting a digital project. That is where proto-personas come in.

A Proto-Persona (or Ad-Hoc Persona) is a persona that is created using a project stakeholder’s intuition and anecdotal evidence (“ad-hoc” meaning improvised or impromptu). These can be created in a variety of manners (here at NEWMEDIA & RiotLabs we like to create them in our Discovery Workshops alongside our partners on the project), However, they serve the same purpose as true personas, which to ensure alignment between all stakeholders on the project.

So the primary difference between proto-personas and true personas is the lack of background research and study when considering proto-personas. Since these proto-personas are created in the absence of research as the project progresses more will be learned about the users, (either through user interviews, A&B testing, etc). Over the course of the project, the proto-personas can be updated to more accurately reflect what has been learned. Through this method of building better personas, your website, software, or app can evolve to always better serve the needs of your users.

Hailing from the frozen north of Minnesota, Matt traded the lakes for mountains when he moved to Denver in the summer of 2014. Having grown up the…

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