October 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Persona-lizing a site

(Page 2 of 3)

Jim McLaughlin, director of business development at H2O Plus, says persona research carried out in collaboration with web design firm Elevation Inc. uncovered several distinct types of customers that the company didn’t realize it had. After setting up a data warehouse to sift through the wealth of information from the web site, the retail stores and catalog sales, Elevation interviewed customers to fill out the psychological, motivational pieces of the puzzle. “Your knowledge is in little bits everywhere, from interacting with customers, interviewing them, looking in their medicine cabinets, watching them put on their makeup,” he says. “When a third party compiles it into personas, you read them and everything kind of clicks.” For example, the research showed that the web site got significant sales from Asian college students studying in the U.S.-a group whose needs were different from those of customers in Asia.

Another unique group was people who had stayed at Disney resorts, which carry various H2O Plus products as amenities in the rooms. The web site now points out which products are featured at Disney, to help those customers track down their favorites.

A site redesign using personas has boosted H2O Plus’s conversion rate from the 5% range into “the high sixes,” McLaughlin said, and shopping cart abandonment has dropped below 60%.

Elevation CEO Adam Heneghan estimates that each client needs six to 10 personas. Too few, and each is too broad to be useful; too many, and things just get confusing. Also, personas are client-specific: the same customer might fit a different persona for each site he visits, depending on whether he’s buying office supplies, shopping for a new bike, or ordering a romantic dinner for two.

Targeting and triage

Personas can serve several functions during a site design or overhaul. First, they keep designers from putting undue emphasis on their own tastes. “Everything is designed for someone,” says Harley Manning, vice president and research director at Forrester Research. “It should be designed for the intended user or customer or prospect, but too often it’s designed to please the designer. That’s fine if you’re targeting art school graduates.” Personas help designers see things from their customers’ point of view.

Personas let marketing and sales people step into the shoes of a customer who doesn’t live and breathe their product line the way they do. “Marketers tend to use jargon and not explain things that they think are obvious,” Manning says. “They focus on features that may mean little or nothing to the customer.”

Personas also help with what user interface consultant Tamara Adlin, president of Adlin Inc., calls “feature triage,” or making the tough decisions when the budget won’t cover every possible bell and whistle. Companies can prioritize personas based on their business objectives, as Staples did with its pair of high-margin personas. Adlin created the customer experience team at Amazon Services, which does research and site design for Amazon’s platform customers, and co-authored the book The Persona Lifecycle. She gives the example of a baby boutique site. “From a brand perspective, is it more important to appeal to Mom or Dad?” she asks. “If the mom is your objective, you’ll probably catch the dad dolphin in that tuna net, as long as you don’t make everything pink. But the priority is to make sure Mom has her needs and goals met.” If the site only has enough budget to please the mom or the dad, and the research shows that the two need different features, then the mom-oriented features should win.

There are several methods for developing personas, and each has its passionate advocates. The most expensive and in-depth method involves one-on-one research within the subject’s home or shopping environment, akin to what anthropologists do when studying a foreign culture.

Forrester’s Manning says there’s no substitute. He recalls an interview with a customer in a store who had just bought a flat screen TV. “He described himself as someone who always gets a good deal, but in fact, he never got one,” Manning says. The customer saw the TV, decided to buy it without any research (even though he described himself as a person who always does research) and at the last minute asked the clerk for a better price. The clerk knocked off 10% from the full list price, which brought it down to a few hundred dollars more than he would have paid if he had gone to a shopping engine and ordered from the low-price web site.

“His real goal was to feel that he got a good deal,” rather than to actually get a good deal Manning says. “He will probably never understand that about himself. He has margin written all over him.” And a face-to-face interview is the key to understanding that particular nuance and many others.

The hard-to-reach personas

Forrester estimates that it costs about $50,000 for this type of persona project, with 21 interviews resulting in four personas. Costs can easily run into six figures for projects requiring more personas, interviews with hard to reach people like physicians or CEOs, or participation from customers on several continents.

Adlin says this approach is overkill for many companies. She runs persona development workshops that take advantage of internal knowledge. “You’re not sending someone to the moon,” she says.

Companies know more about their customers than they think. Adlin helps them uncover their hidden assumptions and devise trial personas that everyone can agree on. The third-party perspective is essential, to keep stereotypes at bay and get everyone to focus, but the groups almost always uncover useful insights. “The power is so strong that it outweighs the risk of creating the wrong personas,” Adlin says. “They won’t be that wrong-they’ll be in the right neighborhood. Then you can go out and get external research to answer the questions you still have.”

Mr. In-Between

FutureNow’s approach is somewhere in between. It takes a company’s existing data-web analytics, customer service feedback, any stories that the staff can come up with-and compares it with a standard personality-analysis matrix to produce four to six types that compose the bulk of a site’s customers.

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