Lightweight personas for ideation workshops

One of the techniques we use to help a group generate ideas in Innovation Discovery workshops is to create light-weight personas. Anchoring the brainstorming using a name, a face, and a story makes it easier for people to generate and later evaluate concrete ideas. The personas also give the group a common vocabulary for talking about different audience segments. For example, if the group defined John as a middle-aged professional concerned about healthcare issues, people can then ask, “What would John think about this?” during other sessions.

The persona ideation exercise is great for sparking energy and getting people to stand up. It can be used in different places, and it can become a running theme.

  • Beginning of workshop -Defining personas - talking about characteristics and challenges: Who are the target segments? What are the gaps? What’s the worst-case scenario?
  • During the workshop – Brainstorming: How can we apply the ideas discussed in the previous session and other ideas we generate to build an ideal scenario for each of these personas?
  • End of the workshop – Evaluating and summarizing: Which of the parts of the ideal scenario can be implemented easily, and which take more effort? Which potential initiatives serve which personas, and how well?

Structure of the session:

Goal: Concrete vision, ideas for initiatives

Input: Light-weight personas which we flesh out with the help of the clients during the workshop session.

Output: Scenarios for each of the personas, and possible summary of key initiatives to explore in the next session.


  1. Identify a few persona types that reflect the client’s target audiences, with the planning team’s help. Ex: entrepreneur, parent, student, and so on.
  2. Look for pictures through Flickr Advanced Search (check all the checkboxes related to Creative Commons so that you can search for commercial-use modifiable photos). Stock photography sites such as and are also useful, although I prefer to use Flickr because the people and situations look more real than posed. Put the pictures into a presentation, one slide per picture, with proper photo credits. If possible, crop the picture so that only one person is in it, and scale it up so that it fills the slide.
  3. Review the pictures and select which ones will be used. Aim for a diverse mix that represents the target audience well in terms of ages, professions, races, etc.
  4. Give the personas nicknames for reference. Use names that are easy to remember and spell. Alliteration is fun to use and makes names more memorable (ex: Bob the baker). Label the final slides with the nicknames in a large font, so that the names can be read from a distance. Adjust the photo contrast if necessary.
  5. Print full-colour copies of the pictures with names. You can post these next to easel sheets taped to the walls for brainstorming. If you have access to a poster printer, you can print large sheets of paper with the picture and the name at the top of the page.
  6. Finalize your persona presentation. Your presentation can be as simple as flipping through all of those pictures one by one, or you can show them all together if there’s space on the slide.

During a break before the session:

  1. Tape up 1-2 easel sheets per persona. Spread these around the room, making sure that there’s enough space for people to stand and talk. Have at least one blank set of easel sheets just in case you need to create a new persona on the fly. If you have plenty of space, put up more easel sheets.
  2. Place markers, Post-it notes, and masking tape near the persona groups. Different-coloured markers and notes give people flexibility.
  3. If you want (and you don’t have too many personas), post the persona pictures next to the easel sheets.

During the session:

  1. Explain the structure and flow of the session (goal, input, output, and the next few steps).
  2. Very briefly review the personas with names, faces, and light detail.
  3. Review the different personas, pointing them out around the room. Ask people to define the characteristics. You can change the characters completely at this point, or introduce new ones. A co-facilitator (or coworker closest to the poster) should jot quick notes about characteristics.
  4. Find out if you need additional personas. Use the blank pages you’ve set aside or repurpose a persona that didn’t click.
  5. Review the personas with the characteristics again, pointing them out around the room. asking people to move to the one they want to focus on. See if you can get people to take responsibility for reporting back at the end. Consider the balance of people among the different groups.
  6. Explain the structure again: people are going to figure out what that persona’s “moment of truth” is with the organization (key customer experience?) and walk through what that scenario could be in 2-3 years (or whatever the workshop’s vision timeframe is). Point out the markers and the notes. Encourage people to move around to other personas they’re interested in contributing to as well.
  7. Give people a time limit. Split up into groups. Walk around and facilitate, asking questions.
  8. Remind people when the time limit is almost up.
  9. Get the groups’ attention. Ask them to briefly tell their persona’s story based on the brainstorm. Take public notes on the different initiatives that can enable that scenario. These notes can be used during the analysis portion.

Analysis (can be done in another session or by another facilitator):

  1. If there are a lot of common initiatives, do the next analysis as a large group. If there are separate initiatives, let people continue the analysis from there.
  2. Let each group (or the large group) discuss which initiatives can be done by either organization separately, and which initiatives need collaboration. Help prioritize the initiatives in terms of perceived effort and benefit. Capture the results in a table.
  3. Review the results with the team.

After the workshop:

Summarize the persona characteristics and stories (may be bullet-point form) in the workshop output document.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t offer too many choices, because clients may just want to have all of them.
  • Don’t give personas too much detail, because clients will benefit the most from personalizing them during the workshop.
  • Don’t be afraid to revamp your personas entirely.
  • Don’t panic. =)