Death to the Persona. Long live the Information Persona

Am I the only person in UX that hates (HATES) Ben (32 – Reads the Guardian and loves riding his mountain bike) and his wife Becky (29 – Likes walking, Grazia and playing with her Poodle called Peaches) …I do… I hate them… they don’t represent anything. There is no ‘Joe Average’ and there never has been, so how are we meant to craft experiences around the average user? We can’t. So in the spirit of fixing the problem I hate here’s a debatable alternative… The Information Persona. Or Behavioral Persona. It’s not a new concept, in fact Jakob and his band of merry bearded user-philes were parroting the theory around about a decade ago, it’s just never been beyond the conversation and we still rely on Ben and his wife Becky (those average idiots and their stupid poodle).

Have a look at this set of alternative grouping from some user interviews conducted & a study of internet behavior. The belief is users can be categorized against six common primary behaviours for information seeking (I’m sure there are more, especially in todays world and this is excluding mobile obviously):

  • Starting: Identifying relevant sources of interest
  • Chaining: Following and connecting new leads found in an initial source
  • Browsing: Scanning contents of identified sources for subject affinity
  • Differentiating: Filtering and assessing sources for usefulness
  • Monitoring: Keeping abreast of developments in a given subject area
  • Extracting: Systematically working through a given source for material of interest.

So what exactly does this mean & how does it actually affect the way in which future proposals should be formed? Quite simply, by identifying & modelling the above personas we can create sets of tools that keep everybody happy! Well that’s the theory anyway…

Behaviour: Starting

This refers to identifying relevant sources on an average, content driven website. There are four principle ways in which users should arrive at given content on the site:

  • Typing in a URL directly
  • Referring to a bookmarked URL
  • Following a link from another section of a website (or another website)
  • Using the search engine (internal and external)

Example features to support Starting:

  • Thoughtfully-designed URLs for sections that are easy to remember
  • Unique URLs for different sections of the Website
  • Page construction that allows for easy and accurate book-marking
  • Carefully worded page titles that provide a useful context

Appropriate use of page tags to describe the content. This should not only facilitate indexing by the search engine on the website, but also yield meaningful descriptions in search results lists. Tags init.

In considering Starting as a behaviour, it is important to remember that users probably first come in contact with a given section of the website from a referring source, e.g. another section or elsewhere, such as a work colleague forwarding a link or other referring sources. The decision to go to visit one section over another is often based on micro-content found in the page title and meta-tags.

Behaviour: Linking

Linking is the act of following and connecting new leads found on initial pages. Chances are that when users arrive at a given section, they are not on the page they need to be. They must be able to orient themselves quickly, often within seconds, and determine which links they should follow.

Example features to support Linking:

  • Accurate, descriptive and mutually exclusive link names that make sense to visitors in terms that they can relate to and understand
  • Consistent navigation through design elements such as placement, style and general look and feel
  • Sense of orientation created with page titles, global elements, consistent use of colour and graphics
  • A way out or back – Generally this means not disabling the back button or using unnecessary extra windows or new browsers
  • Icons with clear meanings
  • A limited number of well-organised navigation options – 7 options are generally accepted as standard, although research shows that fewer than 5 are even better.
  • Navigation that provides the appropriate, relevant associations related to page content to anticipate users’ probable next moves.

Behaviour: Browsing

Browsing means scanning site contents and informally grouping items by subject affinity. This is a behaviour that is hard to image NOT occurring in every section. Browsing is a chief web activity. Supporting this behaviour in the new design, structure & architecture is essential.

Example features to support Browsing:

  • Meaningful categories that themselves convey a message and the purpose of the site
  • Prioritised navigation – separating navigation into meaningful types to facilitate browsing of options.
  • Clearly presented and readable text
  • Content overview – the Website offers the possibility to “chunk” content. That is, it is not necessary to present all content at once, rather in digestible pieces that provide a clear overview.
  • Bulleted lists, tables and other constructions that facilitate scanning

Behaviour: Searching

This refers to direct and targeted searches using a the internal search engine or similar functionality. Important considerations here are twofold: the design of the search interface and functionality, and display of search results.

Example features to support Searching:

  • Allows users to limit in meaningful ways – standard operators (AND, OR and NOT) should be available, in addition to others
  • Query syntax is standard or easily learned
  • Search results provide a context for understanding hits, such as page title, date, description –even show part of the sentence in which the search string was found
  • Opportunity to revise search and to search again
  • If no hits, suggestions to similar, possible sources are presented
  • Spell check with corresponding suggestions for “correct” spellings

Behaviour: Differentiating

Differentiating is the act of evaluating information for relevance to the information need or problem. In some ways this is the combined goal of the above-mentioned behaviours and features. Additional features, however, can directly help visitors uncover the value the Website has to offer. Designers should strive to strike a balance between control and freedom.

Example features to support Differentiating:

  • Logical and meaningful headings that explain content to some degree
  • Appropriate text lengths that are suitable for reading online
  • Chunking content into layers and allowing random access into different sections of information
  • Summary texts and abstracts that indicate the quality, usefulness and scope of content
  • Providing deeper content for those who need it
  • Contact information and help to assist people who need more information or who couldn’t locate exactly what they need
  • User comments and reviews of websites, Web content or products sold over the Web
  • Indications of and links to semantically related material

Behaviour: Monitoring

Monitoring is the behaviour of studying content from a distance. That a Monitoring User watches what happens on a site on a regular basis, but prefers not to actually visit the site because of time or location constraints. Users who monitor often don’t spend vast amounts of time on the internet and want delve straight to regularly visited sources on the occasions that they do.

Example features to support Monitoring:

  • Easily bookmarked pages for quick and easy access at a later date
  • Newsletter subscription
  • Email alerts that notify users of changes in content, current status, updates, etc.
  • SMS message to communicate up-to-the minute changes and breaking news
  • Online agents that collect, control and communicate information and changes
  • Customised pages that allow users to configure site elements to their liking
  • Personalised page that react dynamically to user activity

Behaviour: Extracting

As the name implies, extracting refers to taking and using the appropriate, identified information or pieces of information online. It is the final use of information.

Example features to support Differentiating:

  • The ability to print; print friendly formats, if needed. Dark coloured page backgrounds and frames complicate printing greatly and are a huge strain on ink resources
  • Cut and paste as an option – this means providing key bodies of information in HTML format. Other formats, such as images or flash, do not allow for cut and paste.
  • Download possibilities – Portable document files (PDF) have become standard and readers for this format are ubiquitous and free. Other formats for download can also be considered depending on use and target groups
  • Applications as filters of large bodies of information
  • Sorting functions


So I’m not dumb enough to think Ben & his irritating vanilla life are ever going to go away and we’re going to be liberated of such useful hyperbole. But I am interested in moving our clients away from what they think they know and into new ways of thinking about user-centered design. To me user centered design is about basing things around the behavior of users and not necessarily their personalities, it’s irrelevant if they read the guardian and ride a bike when they visit a banks website.

Some more sources for these behavior types:

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