Designing Based on User Personas: The UX Goldenrule

August 14, 2014
August 14, 2014 Daniel Burns

Designs based on User Personas leads to a better UX.

User research is the “golden weapon” of website owners. Creating user personas, customizes the user experience also known as ux, you reach site visitors on a level that competitors might not. User personas are a tool that allows site owners to cater the experience to individual personality types. A user persona represents a group of people and how they behave; it will delve into what type of content they like, what products they purchase and even the types of experiences that engage that group of people. In an age when fast food franchises offer food the way the customer wants it, online shopping experiences offer suggestions based on the user’s past purchases and people are looking for a personal connection with the companies they do business with, using personas to help design your website only makes sense.

According to Pew Internet Research, over 74% of adults who are online use social networking. Social networks have refined their user (UX) experience, especially in recent years. When a member signs onto Facebook, for example, the system pulls up the top feeds it thinks that particular user will be interested in from friends. In addition, advertising is targeted on Facebook based on Internet browsing, age, history, gender and many other personal details.

It seems nearly every business is beginning to grasp the importance of a personalized experience and if you don’t embrace the concept, you could find your business falling behind competitors who do use user persona based design.

Even the Department of Defense has gotten in on the concept of user personas, spending millions of dollars researching how people use social media, which messages go viral and why some interaction is more successful than other types of interaction. In an article on ARS Technica, writer Sean Gallagher reports that mathematical principals can be applied to figure out what groups of users want and how they will react to a set of given online social interactions.

a/b tests

photo credit: Daniel Eizans via photopin cc

Interviews & A/B Testing of Personas

Your first step to classifying your users into types is conducting testing to see what types of people are visiting your website and how they are behaving. Not only do you want to test your customers, but you want to be sure you’ve grouped them correctly. If you create a user persona for a 20-year-old woman named Katie, she is probably more likely to want products geared to a 20-something than products for senior citizens. First, however, you have to figure out the details of Katie’s life.

First, you’ll want to conduct interviews of a portion of your customers. It isn’t necessary to interview each and every customer, but you want a good sampling, so aim for five or six customers in each persona type. Simply ask your current customers or site visitors if they’d be willing to answer a few questions. The questions should be based on the experience you want the user to have. If your main goal is to engage that type of user, then you need to ask questions about what makes them stay on your site, what would make them stay longer, etc.

You will want to focus your questions on:

  • Who your users are
  • Why they want to use your site
  • What are their daily, weekly, monthly, annual behaviors as related to your site?
  • Do they have any expectations that affect the way they see your site?

Once you’ve completed the interview process, you are going to create a user persona for that age group or demographic based on the average responses. It is usually best to throw out any extremes. For example, if you want to know how many times a day the persona visits shopping websites and one person answers once, another person answers fifteen and the middle four or five answer three, you will want to stick closer to three than one or fifteen. This is your baseline user. Yes, there are going to be extreme personalities in any user persona, but for our sampling, you simply want an average to aim at. This will satisfy the majority of your customers.

According to Usability.gov, it is best to stick to no more than three or four personas per site. This will help you target the user experience more effectively. You’ll want to watch for themes across the interviews. Is anything in particular trending? Do all users, regardless of age or background, want an easier checkout process? Once you’ve analyzed all the research, create your personas. Give each one a name and classify the average age, career, behaviors, etc. This part of the process can actually be a lot of fun for website owners as they create imaginary people that represent their target customers. What are the characteristics of each persona?

Now, decide which persona is your primary audience, secondary and so on. Starting with the primary group, create A/B Testing modules to see what types of tweaks make that user respond most often. You’ll need to set up landing pages so that all users in that primary group go to one of the landing pages (50/50) and measure the results after they land on that page. This will tell you a lot about what colors, wording and features this persona is looking for. Repeat with your other personas until you have a solid model of conversion behavior for each type.

Once you’ve completed all research, develop your persona by charting pertinent information. An example is below of things you might include:

  • Persona Grouping – age or other defining factor
  • Name of the Persona – such as Katie or Mary
  • Career – what type of career this personality type typically has
  • Detailed Demographics – family, age, religion, education
  • Why – what does the person hope to accomplish on your site
  • Picture that indicates that persona – Katie would be a young 20-something professional woman, for example.
UX Methods Infographic

When to Use Which UX Methods – Infographic

Designing by Customer Types

Personas will help with professional web design right down to the keywords you use. Because you know the way the persona behaves, you’ll have an understanding about the types of keywords that persona might search for.

Now that you’ve developed user personas, as you create different pages and features on your site, you can ask:

  • What will make this person want to stay on my site?
  • Does this feature speak to the core values of the persona?
  • What pages on my site is this persona most likely to view?
  • What call to action would work best with this persona?
  • What would make this person want to share the content?

In addition, you’re going to want to filter your site visitors to the experience that is best for him her. You’ve probably visited a clothing retailer site where the initial landing page asks if you are male or female and then subsequent questions. This is an example of a site using personas to direct you to the content best for you. Of course, you’ll also want good navigation for the rare person who doesn’t really fit well into a particular persona. For most people, filtering them through a series of simple questions will quickly take them to the content they most want.

Mistakes to Avoid

Not enough socialization: Social media has been embraced from teens on up to senior citizens. In a highly technological world, where you scan your groceries yourself, go through an automated bank teller and interact with machines rather than humans, people crave social moments with others, even if they are online and even if they are not as personal as face-to-face relationships. What social interactions can you provide for each persona that enhances the overall message or goal of your site?

Taking shortcuts because of small budgets: Creating a user persona can take time and money. Whether you hire a research company or a web designer to implement your ideas, costs can add up quickly. A company on a tight budget may be tempted to take shortcuts around the process or use the general personas from another site. This is a big mistake, because your customers are unique to your company and behave uniquely based on their experience on your site. If you have a small budget, then you’ll need to invest more time into researching your site visitors and what persona groups they fall into.

Getting too detailed: As mentioned above, creating personas can be fun, especially for creative types. It is easy to get so involved in the process of creating a user-character that you get too detailed. While you want a general idea of career, income, family, and values, getting too specific may hurt your efforts to create content that reaches a wide range of people in a particular demographic. Be detailed but not too specific and you’ll hit the right balance. Focus on ranges, such as that the persona makes between $60-75K a year.

Not updating the personas: Your business is fluid and your website should be, too. As your business grows and the industry you’re in changes, the persons who visit your site and are your patrons will also change. People also grow up, change careers, enhance their education and gain new interests. From time to time, you’ll want to update your personas to reflect this. Simply repeat the process of interviewing and A/B testing your customers to create new personas. You probably don’t need to repeat this process every year unless you’ve noticed a significant decrease in site traffic and/or sales. Every three to five years is a good time to review your personas and if they are still working for you. This can help your company determine if new personas should be created.

User Persona Example

Photo Credit: calliope_Muse via Compfight cc

Developing Personas

Development leaders need to be careful how they pose questions. As Linda Bustos wrote over on Get Elastic, Walmart learned this lesson the hard way when they asked customers if they wanted the aisles in Walmart stores “less cluttered”. Of course customers said yes because who wouldn’t want less clutter. Walmart lost billions of dollars in sales as a result of cutting inventory based on this one questions.

The question had one major problem. First, it asked something that most people would automatically say yes to without considering the consequences (i.e. less inventory means some items are not available and thus customers will purchase those items elsewhere). Second, customers may want an ideal shopping experience, but their behavior may not follow what they say they want.

This is why testing is so vital and why developers must carefully think through how they respond to the interview process and the A/B testing. Creating a site that is responsive to user personas and still increases sales takes creativity and common sense.

Yes companies should offer products and services based on user personas, but not to the tune of sacrificing the stability of the company. Introduce new services and products carefully and test any changes thoroughly. With a little foresight, good business sense and understanding of your customers, your company will stand out from competitors and see an increase in conversions.

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