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In Defense Of The Assumption Persona

Have you ever had that frustrating conversation with your boss where what they said and what you thought they meant were different?

Your boss may have had certain assumptions and expectations that were not communicated to you. You may have had certain assumptions based on what they said. Either way, some sort of misunderstanding led to that awkward and frustrating conversation.

You and your boss are not mind readers. If neither of you are aware of each other’s assumptions how can you do anything about them? Those assumptions need to be explicitly stated so we can hold them in our hands and critically examine them. Whether the assumption is valid or not, or whether you want to challenge the assumption or not is not important, the important part is that you know about it.

As a user experience designer, I need to understand what a stakeholder (also known as the person paying the bills or who has some sort of “stake” in a product) wants from it. I can’t just walk up to them and ask “Dear Stakeholder, what are your inherent biases that you have towards your customers?” Of course not, that would be silly.

So, how do you ask someone about their assumptions in a respectful way?

I use assumption personas. An assumption persona is a collection of attributes we assume are associated with a type of person. For example, when I say “cheerleader”, what image pops into your head? How about “quarterback”?

What words do you use to describe them?

We may assume they are popular, athletic, and perhaps preppy. Those attributes we assigned to them are the essence of an assumption persona. Assumption personas are created from fictitious or factual information that are based on stakeholders’ assumptions. They are horrible for creating good products because what we think may not be accurate or can’t be applied to everyone. However, assumption personas are a great excuse to start a conversation and extract people’s assumptions in a respectful way.

How do you build an assumption persona?

Start by getting all your stakeholders into a room and ask a question like the one I proposed:

“What words or phrases would you use to describe a cheerleader and what they do?”

Have everyone write their thoughts on sticky notes. One assumption/thought per sticky note.

Going around the room, each person reads off what they wrote on their sticky note. Others in the room may ask follow-up questions for clarification after the person reads their sticky note and it is a good idea to focus on the origin of that term or phrase. For example, my friend “A” said cheerleaders were dedicated and the following is the conversation I had to clarify what she meant by “dedicated”:

Kristina: “What do you mean by dedicated?”

A: “They have to put in a lot of hours, and go to a lot of games, and do a lot of work at those games.”

Kristina: “Oh?”

A: “Well, I don’t know any cheerleaders, but I watched the Dallas Cowboys cheerleader reality show ‘Making the team’. And they have to put practice every day and extra classes and early and late practices and they have to show up to all the games and be knowledgeable about the team.”

Kristina: “And you saw all of this on the show?”

A: “Yep.”

Kristina: “Have you seen it in other places?”

A: “No. Well…in general comments, on Tumblr and Twitter about misjudging cheerleaders. People think they have to dance and be pretty but it’s a lot more work than that.”

Read, clarify, repeat. If you have sticky notes that represent similar thoughts then you can group those sticky notes into a pile to avoid redundancy and identify common assumptions among your stakeholders.

At the end of the discussion, everyone has a shared understanding of the subject and a common vernacular based on the original terms and phrases that are explicitly captured on piles of sticky notes. Inherent assumptions that your boss may have held are now unambiguous statements on paper and you can decide what to do with that information.

I believe it is important to learn what people are like rather than what I think they’re like, so I can build amazing products that serve them. Explicitly drawing out assumptions of my stakeholders is the first step in that process and assumption personas are a great way of starting that conversation.


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