Minimum viable personas (MVPs)

Skeleton

I hate acronyms, I really do. Acronyms are used by people who are too lazy to use proper words and by those who want to keep others out from their secret little acronym laden club. Seriously, I’m not a computer so don’t talk to me in short little codes that I won’t understand. WTF! (Whoops). It therefore pains me to throw another acronym into an already acronym overburdened world, but alas sometimes a bit of collateral damage is hard to avoid. The shiny new acronym in question is: MVPs – Minimum Viable Personas.

What are minimum viable personas? Well very much like a minimum viable product, a minimum viable persona is a persona that is just about ‘good enough’ to do what you need it to do. A persona that has just enough information and detail. A persona that is useful within the UX design process but which hasn’t had any more time and effort spent on it than is absolutely necessary. A minimum viable persona is like the humble, but essential sandwich. Sure, it’s not going to be the best food you’ve ever tasted, but it’s ‘good enough’ to stop you from getting too hungry.

In my last article I outlined why there is still life left in personas. I also outlined some of the reasons why personas have fallen out of favour with many designers – one being that too much time and effort has often been spent on personas. Minimum viable personas help alleviate this problem by keeping that time and effort to a minimum. Let me explain.

Swiss Toni & Barbecuing

There used to be a great BBC comedy sketch show in the UK call the Fast Show. One of the characters in the show was called Swiss Toni. To Toni almost any situation in life is best understood as being, “like making love to a beautiful woman”. Take making a cup of coffee for instance.

Swiss Toni

“Making a cup of coffee is like making love to a beautiful woman. It’s got to be hot. You’ve got to take your time. You’ve got to stir… gently and firmly. You’ve got to grind your beans until they squeak.”

I desperately wanted to show how creating minimum viable personas is, “like making love to a beautiful woman” but I worried about where this might take me so instead I’m going to save your and my own blushes by showing how it’s “like cooking food on a barbeque”.

What the hell has barbecuing got to do with minimum viable personas? Well, it’s all about good preparation and judging just the right amount of time to spend. Every experienced barbecuer knows that if you try to barbeque your food too soon, namely whilst everything is still madly flaming away (I’m talking about a ‘proper’ charcoal barbeque here) it’s going to end badly. You’re going to burn the outside of your food, and undercook the inside. Even once you’ve waited for the flames to go down it’s very much a balancing act. If you don’t cook things for long enough you’re going to give everyone food poisoning. Too much cooking time and your food will be edible, but horribly overcooked. A good barbecuer knows that the key is putting the necessary time and effort into preparing the barbeque, and then putting just the right amount of time into cooking the food. Not enough preparation and things go badly. Too little cooking time and things go badly. Too much cooking time and things go badly.

Personas are just the same. Create personas without the necessary preparation and homework, without gathering user insights and user research findings and your personas are going to turn out burnt and inedible. Put too little time into creating personas and they’re going to potentially poison the project team with lots of dangerous assumptions and baseless user information. Put too much time into creating your personas and you’re going to overcook them. You’re not only going to needlessly burn time creating them in the first place but you’re going to potentially bombard your team and stakeholders with more information than they arguably need.

Barbecuing

Creating personas is like barbecuing – both require good preparation and just the right amount of time

Just as barbequing is a step towards creating a nice meal, personas are just a step towards creating a great experience for your users. The amount of time and effort you spend on personas should reflect this so rather than spending weeks creating beautiful and exquisitely detailed personas, you should be spending mornings, or even just a few hours creating a set of minimum viable personas. Here’s how.

How to create minimum viable personas

A really great way to quickly create a set of minimum viable personas is by running a 2-3 hour collaborative workshop. Invite a small group of people who know about users and ideally have had direct contact with them. For example you might have someone from sales, someone from support, someone from market research and so on.

If you realise that there is relatively little known about your users then you’ll need to carry out some rapid user research prior to the workshop (unlike proto-personas, minimum viable personas should always be based on good ol fashioned user research). Get out of the office and track your users down. Find out who they are, what makes them tick and what is important to them. Don’t spend too long, but you need to be able to get at least some idea of who your users are otherwise your minimum viable personas will be a work of pure fiction, and designing for purely fictional users is never a good thing.

Persona workshop

A collaborative workshop is a great way to create minimum viable personas

1. Agree your user groups

The first thing that you want to do (rapid user research aside) is to identify and agree your distinct user groups. This is something that you can do prior to the workshop so that you can come to the workshop with some potential groups in mind.

When identifying your user groups look for behavioural differences rather than demographic ones. For example, if you’re designing a product for online grocery shoppers you might have identified that there is a group of users who like to plan out everything that they need to buy before going online. This group of users are likely to be of all different ages and backgrounds, but because their behaviour is similar you should be able to cover them off with just one persona. Discuss and agree your user groups at the start of the workshop. It can also be useful to identify key user groups as you’ll want to focus on these first.

2. Create a minimum viable persona for each user group

Having agreed your user groups, collectively create a minimum viable persona for each user group using the information and knowledge in the room. Start with your most important group and try to spend no more than 30 minutes on each persona so that you can hopefully cover them all off within the workshop.

Capture key information for each persona. A good starting point is the following:

  • Name – Give them a memorable name and tag line
  • Goals – What are they trying to achieve?
  • Background – Who are they? What is their background?
  • Needs – What matters most to them?
  • Behaviours – What sort of a relationship with the product would they like?
  • Frustrations  – What are their pain points?

If you have to make assumptions, that’s fine, just be sure to capture those assumptions so that you can check them later on. Otherwise you are potentially designing against false premises.

Proto-persona

An example minimum viable persona by Anthony Reyes

3. Add a photo and some detail

After the workshop you can add a bit of gloss to your minimum viable personas if you like. It can be good to add a photo (just avoid stock photos), include a little extra detail and to clean them up so that they are a little easier to read and take in.

Minimum viable persona example

An example minimum viable persona with a photo and some detail added

4. Use your personas

Whilst it’s useful getting everyone together to discuss who your users are and to build a shared understanding of them, creating a set of minimum viable personas is pretty pointless unless you’re going to actually put them to use. I’ve already written before about how personas are a vital ingredient to design stories such as scenarios, experience maps, user story maps, storyboards and scenario maps. In my next article I’m going to show you exactly how you can put your personas to good use by outlining 5 specific ways to use personas in your project.

See also

Photo credits

Business workshop by The Natural Step Canada
Proto-persona by Anthony Reyes