Using a traditional model to define and work with personas carries 2 major problems form my perspective. First, a lot of theoretical-based effort is put into the creation of those stereotypes and they often times lack any kind of real life validation. Second, the initial costly creation process is used as an excuse to not re-evaluate user needs and hide them in a drawer until someone asks for them.
While recently re-reading Jeff Gothelf’s book Lean UX, I stumbled upon a very lean (of course) alternative to tackle those issues: Proto-Personas.
Proto-Personas are basically the most lightweight and real life-oriented version of creating user stereotypes to build your product upon. The approach is dead simple: The committee of experts (mostly consisting of design, product and marketing) roughly defines one type of user they see as their target audience. During that, the team focusses on not more than 3-4 demographic aspects of the user and tries to come up with about 4 concrete problems and 4 concrete improvements (basically pains and gains) they think this type of user currently has with the product they’re trying to improve.
The whole process shouldn’t take longer than one hour. After that, the team hits the road and talks to users of the existing product, focussing on pains and gains. The outcome of those interviews can either be the confirmation of the initial assumptions, a correction in the area of pains & gains or even throwing away the whole persona and developing a new one, based on the user interviews.
What I like so much about this format is the incredibly small upfront effort which makes it way easier to discard initial assumptions and react to what you’ve heard. In addition, the used pains and gains didn’t came out of a study or someone’s gut, but from real users.