One Persona, Many Behaviors

A common mistake when creating personas is equating one persona with one style of online behavior. Although this simplifies the creation and presentation of personas, it is not an accurate reflection of actual site visitors, their motivations, and their behaviors. Do you have the same goals and behave the same way all the time?

People behave differently under different circumstances and have different needs and goals at different times. Although it may be convenient to think of John Q. Persona as “the guy who abandons his shopping cart ten times before committing to the purchase,” this is not necessarily the way he behaves all the time.

Nearly all web site visitors will change their online behavior based on their current goals. Sometimes we have extra time to surf, and sometimes we are in rush and need to get in and get out efficiently. Sometimes we need to search extensively (e.g., I want a good suspense novel), and sometimes we already know what we are looking for and where (e.g., I want the latest Anne Rice book.) But rarely do we do the same thing every time.

Personas should be representative of actual site visitors, and that means that they will have a range of goals and behaviors. Some behaviors may be more common than others, but they will exhibit a variety of behaviors over time. Yes, John Q. Persona may be more likely to abandon shopping carts than other personas, but perhaps he only does that when comparison shopping for himself. His behavior may be different when he shops for gifts for others, or maybe his behavior changes when he browses from home versus browsing from his office during lunch.

To get the most out of personas, we should separate the personalities (i.e., the personas) from the actual behaviors. Create personas to learn about who site visitors are demographically, what motivates them, how they react to options or designs, and what content or experiences are important to them. Create experience flows to describe the most common behaviors that are observed or desired for the site (e.g., gift shopping vs. product research.) Then play mix-and-match with the personas and the experience flows: which experience flows are most likely for each persona, then rank order them. For example, John Q. Persona may exhibit more cart abandonment behavior than any other persona, but he may also be interested in comparison shopping, product research, and interactive merchandising displays.

Personas are meant to be realistic representations of actual site visitors, so it is important to remember that real visitors behave differently at different times and under different circumstances, therefore personas should also exhibit tendencies, preferences, and ranges of behavior.