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How proto-persona workshops can help kickstart research

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Collaboration culture, Start with user needs, User research

Illustrations of different personasPDS does a lot of stuff. At our fortnightly meetings of teams across the organisation, there are over 40 ongoing pieces of work happening. This isn’t even a comprehensive list of everything PDS is up to.

As our user research team is relatively small, we need to prioritise what work we focus our attention on. We also need to find other ways of supporting the rest of the work done by PDS.

Our team has decided to focus its attention on being members of agile product teams. However there are still a lot of other projects which could use some of our help. One way we’re helping other teams is by running proto-persona workshops. These can help teams to start thinking about user needs for their projects.

What proto-personas are

Personas are a way of capturing knowledge about the users of services. They’re based on research and represent user needs.

Proto-personas are similar as they also represent users.  However they’re based on the assumptions of people who're working on a project or service rather than real research. Although they're not based on real research, creating them can be a useful exercise. They can help reveal and capture assumptions, build a shared awareness of potential users and can be a roadmap for future research.

Our team has started offering this workshop to guide teams in understanding their users when we can’t give them a full time researcher.

What happens in the workshop

Currently these workshops have three parts. In the first part, we ask participants to write all the potential user types on post-its and map them on a wall.

We then use an axis to display the post-its and the labels can change depending on the project. They can be things like ‘familiarity with Parliament’ and ‘familiarity with technology’. Plotting user types on an axis helps identify where grouping could occur, reducing the amount of potential users.

These users are then prioritised as we can't go through them all in a single workshop. Each participant is given three dots to vote for the ones they feel we should focus on first. This should reveal three or four ‘prioritised’ types of users that we can focus on for the rest of the workshop. However all the user types are recorded and shared with the participants later, potentially for future research.

The participants then split into groups, each taking a single type of user. In each group, we ask them to write down a few things. Assumed ‘goals’ of their user (what they are trying to do), ‘needs’ (what the service needs to do for them to achieve their goals) or ‘pain points’ (what’s hard currently) that they think affect this type of user. This is then presented back to the whole group with the opportunity for others to add to or challenge the assumptions. This activity creates a group of ‘messy’ proto-personas.

But this is not the end

Capturing people’s knowledge and assumptions gives some insight into user needs for a project. As researchers though, we know that assumptions can often be wrong and should be verified before any work is done with them.

We need to make sure the participants are aware of this, and mark their statements as assumptions when recorded. We’ll then support them in validating their assumptions through interviews, analytics and other data sources. This then leads into the creation of a research plan for their project. Although our team rarely has the capacity to run this research, we can advise and help make sure that the research meets best practice.

What we should watch out for

There are some risks with these workshops that researchers need to be aware of. The first is to make sure that participants realise that their assumptions aren't enough and they need to be validated by real research. A way to help reinforce this is to keep the output from these workshops deliberately messy. For example, keep the post-its on paper, and don’t write up the findings until they’ve been validated by research.

Participants will also need help to validate their assumptions in a reliable and unbiased way. This is something that we can manage through advice, reviewing discussion guides, assisting with analysis and so on.

By managing these risks, proto-persona workshops can be a helpful technique for getting people to start thinking about their users. This can then guide their research activities and give them some inspiration to help their decision making throughout a project.

If you're interested in doing research or would like any advice then please get in touch with the user research team

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