Using personas to move customers along the value chain

When designing sites, some web agencies like to give users a seat at the table. Literally. HighWire’s Head of Design recalls an agency who used to bring a cardboard cut-out of a typical user to meetings. This is not just a piece of whimsy: user personas have a well-established pedigree in marketing since their use was pioneered in the 1990’s, and have become an important part of the toolkit for UX designers.

Following are two personas that the design team created as a result of research work in conjunction with the University of Sussex, and showed how this powerful technique can be used to help in moving customers along the value chain.

Two personas – 1. Matt

Matt, wistfully looking off into the future, sports an ‘interesting’ beard that suggests, perhaps, an interest in Nu Metal. He is an undergraduate, and easily distracted. He has accounts on Spotify and Netflix, consuming media in a way that may be very unfamiliar to traditionalists. He might have, indeed, a very different idea of media and how content should be consumed.

Matt keeps his social activity extremely separate from his study. For him they are different worlds. Matt is never going to hit any of those little Facebook ‘like’ buttons on publisher pages: he is not about to share an academic paper on his Facebook page where he posts videos of cats and bands like Slipknot.

He’s a novice researcher with a defined trigger for his research, which is his course. Matt is most likely to come into a publisher page from a link on a VLE (virtual learning environment). He will have been given a bunch of such links by a tutor. Once on that page he is likely to go straight to the content he wants, disregarding all the other ‘jazz’ on the page (an actual user description!), click on the PDF button and then go away again. He’ll then read or print out the article.

In Owen’s view, this user archetype really needs more focus from publishers.

Two personas – 2. Susan

Susan, 42, is very different from Matt. An expert researcher, she’s been doing this for a while. Her boundary between work and social life is far more porous than his. To quote one researcher: ‘It’s very difficult to say, “I am doing research” or “I am now not doing research”: you’re thinking about it all the time’. Susan might well click that ‘like’ button or ‘tweet’ button to share academic content because she knows that the people in her social network – many of whom have similar profiles to hers, are interested in the same things. So this kind of user is more likely to use that part of the interface.

When it comes to consuming media, Susan’s habits are far more traditional than Matt’s. She still buys CDs, for instance (probably by Mumford & Sons). In fact, she conforms to the marketing stereotype that used to be called ‘fifty quid man’ – a consumer who will reliably spend around £50 of their monthly wage on books and CDs to build a home media collection. Meanwhile, Matt may well be illegally downloading a proportion of his music and films – the point is that these two archetypes, Matt and Susan, consume media in a completely different way.

These differences influence the way each will use the interfaces we build. Unlike Matt, who just wants the pdf, Susan needs context; she needs the ‘jazz’ on the page. She can hunt things down herself, she is a bloodhound. When Susan gets the piece of content she wants, she needs – for instance – a list of related items; because she wants to go on and explore further, and find other pieces of content that might be relevant.

UX and the business

User research and the resulting creation of such personas (personae?) provide useful insights for interface designers in fulfilling the needs of customers. However the work also raises questions for any development project.

For instance, here we have two very different categories of user, with different needs and behaviours – so do we make a choice about which one to design for, privileging the needs of Susan, the experienced researcher, over those of Matt, or vice versa? Or do we try to fulfill both needs with one interface – in which case, what is the weighting of those priorities? In other words, if we come to an instance where these two sets of needs seem to conflict, would we put Susan’s needs first – or Matt’s?

The answers to questions such as these inevitably involve commercial and strategic objectives for the site. Which is not to say that the decision then becomes entirely straightforward. It is never safe to ‘hand off’ UX design decisions to the monthly sales spreadsheet, as it were. A site design compromised by short-term sales objectives might discourage users from coming back and continuing the relationship, and carry a risk of long-term brand damage. It might well be, for instance, that Susan is a great deal closer to the source of a subscription purchase decision than Matt, and is so the more important audience for the site. Matt, however, might well be a future researcher – he might even be studying for a degree in librarianship, one day to become a budget-holder himself.

Two things are obvious from the above. Firstly, UX is difficult to keep in a box, divorced from the high level management of the development: UX decisions have strategic implications. Secondly, while UX should never be an afterthought, equally it can’t just be considered in the design phase and then forgotten about. At HighWire, the UX team has inputs throughout the project, from the discovery phase right through to launch and beyond.

Controlling the user experience

UX has touch points with all areas of the business – including high-level business strategy, technical architecture, and functional requirements. To quote Don Norman [who he?] user experience refers to, ‘all aspects of a person’s experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual’. The speed at which a page loads is as much a part of the experience as the on-page copy or the quality of search.

But UX designers cannot afford to be control freaks. Clearly there are limits to what can be controlled on a site, which might be down to the internal structure of the client organization, and its silos – a fact of business life. Also the UX designer cannot fully control matters of user affect: after a late night bingeing on Korn outtakes, Matt might wake up with a headache. The best UX designer in the world can’t do anything about that.

For this reason, to describe the object of UX as creating ‘happy users’, is in Owen’s view, a great goal to go for, but perhaps a little unrealistic. What we can do, he says, is to create frictionless systems; systems that are easy to use, appropriate and useful – and which, most importantly, don’t produce unhappy users by thwarting their aims and confusing them. Hopefully the result of this is satisfied users; users who will come back to the site gladly because it served them well last time – users who are retained as customers, and ultimately will be advocates for the site, helping to attract further customers.

UX and the value chain

This brings us to how UX fits in with the marketing goal of moving customers up the value chain. The diagram below shows the customer loyalty loop. Anyone who has spent any time around marketeers will have seen a diagram similar to this.


It describes how potential customers are brought into interaction with the proposition (acquisition), then have their interest converted into action (activation), leading onto a purchase and repeat purchase, at which time they become loyal customers and then can be encouraged to act as advocates for the product and brand, bringing in new potential customers and closing the loop.


Owen then showed the same diagram, but with a UX flavor: ‘If we do the Orient and Interact parts well, the other should look after themselves’. He then drilled down a little into the UX activities that fall under these headings, and how they work from the user’s perspective:

  • Orient – signposting, wayfaring, navigation, taxonomy: where am I? Can I easily go back or forwards? Do I understand where I am in the context of the site’s content structure?
  • Interact – UI, Interface, tools: is it easy to get about and complete the tasks I want to do?
  • Retain – if I can do the above, then the experience has been appropriate and useful

The key to all this is understanding the user, through creation of personas. Armed with this knowledge, the UX designer can create experiences that live up to and exceed expectations, moving customers through the loyalty loop and, as they derive and contribute more value from their relationship with the client’s products and services, along the value chain.

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