Functional Web Personas Require “Imaginary” Click Trails

If you really want to get to know people, travel with them. That’s true for imaginary people, too, says Adam Lavelle, vice president of corporate strategy at Ltd., where the stories devised for personas that the firm creates are growing ever more complex and dynamic.

“We are mapping out the journey the customer takes,” says Lavelle. To figure out how personas might act in a given situation during a visit to a Web site, designers break their journeys down into specific steps, doing primary research, such as observing actual customers with video as they go to the bank, in an effort to draw their characters more accurately.

The sites are supposed to have some sense of how best to interact with different types of real customers.

When, for instance, should the site offer a live chat with a mortgage specialist—and when should the site shut up? “The idea is to test, learn and apply, so that the persona has the right experiences—the ones that are like a real person’s,” says Lavelle.

Personas are evolving to better model human behavior. A couple of years ago, the backstory on a persona might have included a rudimentary biography and general personality traits. Now many persona files are more like a movie treatment, with sophisticated scenario servers from vendors such as ATG Inc. used to drive the action. Lavelle says the persona profiles are “living documents” that change and grow with experience.

“They have to be realistic and empathetic, so that senior executives think they are like the real people who are going to use the sites,” he explains.

But as their stories get more complicated, personas will reach a limit of individuation beyond which the return on investment may dwindle. When shopping online, human behavior is not a unique fingerprint, and the cost-effective way to market for the foreseeable future is to predict and drive the actions of relatively large groups of people. “We want to avoid too many personas, trying to be all things to all people,” Lavelle says, adding that, however lifelike personas may become in the future, the concept remains a stretch for many marketers today, who, he says, are “more comfortable with demographics than behavior.”

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