Know Thy Customer: Building Proto-Personas

Filed Under: May 2019 Issue

By Ja Nae Duane
Close your eyes. Now, picture who you think will buy your product or service. Does this person work for a big, established company or operate as a solopreneur? Do you see a spouse and kids or someone who travels a lot in their free time? What about age? Old or young? Gender? Male or female? These are just a few of the questions you’ll weigh when you build proto-personas for your business. A proto-persona is an ad-hoc approach to creating a persona. A true persona is based on formal research, and they take a lot of time and money.
A proto-persona, on the other hand, is a snapshot that you build to represent potential customers. Clearly, they aren’t scientific, but they can provide a valuable reference point. After all, you’re spending a lot of time, and probably a lot of money, to create your product or service. Don’t you need to know who you’re creating it for without spending a fortune and months of time?
For instance, let’s say you want to build a same-day delivery service. To figure out what you need to include in that service, you need to look at your potential company from the customer’s point of view. What do they need to make your service valuable to them?
To answer that question, you need to dive into that potential customer’s mind and life. Initial proto-persona exercises will take about 10 minutes and the review and discussion a few hours. While this exercise can stretch into a few days, you need those days to let things percolate a bit so you can test and refine the final proto-persona.
One last thing before we review the specifics. Your team will generate several proto-personas as part of the exercise. After all, more than one type of person shops at Amazon, buys a phone from Apple, or hails an Uber. You’ll use the refining period to tighten things up and get down to three to five proto-personas.
First, pull your team together and lay out the purpose of the exercise. Make sure you have plenty of paper and Sharpies handy. Then, have everyone sketch out the Proto-Persona Framework. For this exercise, we’re using four quadrants: Name, Behaviors, Demographics, Needs/Goals.

  • Name:Sketch (as in draw) the individual, include a name and some basic demographic info
  • Behaviors:Identify the behaviors and beliefs of the persona
  • Demographics:Explore and list more detailed demographics
  • Needs/Goals:Identify the needs and goals of the persona

This is a 10-minute exercise where each person writes out their persona as they see it. You ask, “Whom do you see as the buyer of your product or service?” After everyone has a chance to fill in the details, each team member will present a proto-persona to the group and answer questions. Why this person? Why these behaviors? Why these needs? Do this for each proto-persona your team develops.
Give your team a chance to think through the feedback they received. Who still makes sense as a customer and who doesn’t? Do some examples overlap? Can they be consolidated?
Schedule time on day two to go through this review process a few more times. Bring in other stakeholders and make them do their own personas. When you compare the personas, I guarantee it will be fascinating to see the differences.
As a group, you need to debate what elements are most important to the proto-personas that make the cut. Finally, when you’ve narrowed the options to the three to five I mentioned earlier, it’s time to place those proto-personas on five different spectrums.
In this exercise, a spectrum is a category relevant to your company that you pick. Going back to our earlier example of the same-day delivery, one spectrum might be price sensitivity. On a scale of 1-10, you’d place each proto-persona. Let your team vote.
Does Joan, the busy executive at the tech company with an expense account, care very little about the price? If so she’d, fall at number one or two on the spectrum. But David, the small business owner on a tight budget, may care a lot about the price, so he falls at the opposite end with an eight or 10.
As you and your team place the proto-personas along the different spectrums, you’ll build a clearer picture of potential customers and how they might connect and interact with your company. You can then use this information to refine or even pivot as you go and increase the odds that you end up with a product or service people actually want.
Remember: you may very well be the ideal customer for what you want to sell. But don’t miss the opportunity to build something that other people might want, too. After all, you can’t exactly make a profit off of one person.
Ja-Naé Duane is Founder of The Revolution Factory and co-author of The Startup Equation.
She can be reached at