The Magic Of Personas on Selling Online [A How To Guide]

Whether you are creating a new website or app or improving something already existing, you want your online experience to be really driven by your customer’s voice and by not yourself or your team.
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[Editorial Notes : Defining user personas is extremely crucial for any product. Manoj Kumar, ex-product manager of MakeMyTrip (and now an entrepreneur) takes a deep dive into personas.]

Let me assume that you agree 100% with the following statement:

Whether you are creating a new website or app or improving something already existing, you want your online experience to be really driven by your customer’s voice and by not yourself or your team.

Truth be told- I have never come across anyone who disagrees with the above. But it’s equally true that I have hardly ever seen this being practiced in real life. The irony!

Why is there such a big gap between theory and practice in this regard, especially in Indian scenario? I think where the ball gets dropped is that most either do not know the answer to the following question

How do you bring customers at the center stage of all design and content thinking?

What is the trick? Well one trick is called personas.  Sounds familiar?… have heard this before.. may have tried this before… err… sounds like a boring concept… well I bet 9/10 chances are that you are doing it wrong! I have done online product management for a living for many years and have worked with some of the most experienced product managers in India… and I can tell you from personal experience that most of us do not get this stuff right (and that’s saying it nicely. Most of us have no clue about our website persona’s is the fact). Hang in there a bit while I explain.

To understand this better, I’ll use UrbanLadder as the context in this post (they have been in news recently in India and I like a lot of things about them, though they need tons of improvement as well).

I like the space they are in (in India) – furniture is huge, but semi-organized market with I believe generous margins and great opportunity to create differentiation through product quality and service standards. Now, when want to sell furniture online, we have to think about the different people who will buy… here is where persona’s come into the picture.

Ok, let’s determine the relevant persona’s

FIRST Question- most of us will begin by asking “who are the most common type of people who will come to Urbanladder?

Short Answer – WRONG FIRST QUESTION!

Eh… digest that.

WRONG QUESTION! WRONG QUESTION! WRONG QUESTION!

OK, hope you are finding this interesting now. BTW, if you did not catch my point – here it is once more – the FIRST question was WRONG. Go grab a coffee.

Sip…

Now a few questions that will explain the above statements.

Question: what kind of people move houses?

House Shifting Paul KellerImage by Paul Keller

Answer: All types – young and old, married and single, male and female, urban and rural, small town and big town

Question: what kind of people build new houses?

House Construction Owen JenningsImage by Owen Jennings

Answer: All types – young and old, married and single, male and female, urban and rural, small town and big town

What has this got to do with personas for Urbanladder?

Well, in both the above situations, you are highly likely to need new furniture When you are making a new house, you may order new furniture for all rooms, but when you are moving houses, you may just need a few pieces.

You see the right FIRST QUESTION is

What mode are you in while buying furniture?

Mode Renjit Shenoy R

Image by Ranjith shenoy R

Stereotypes (like young/old, urban/rural etc.) are not the right starting point in determining personas. Persona is not ‘type’ of person rather, mode in which a person interacts with your website (of course you will also define the personality, but the mode of interaction comes first. Confusing? stay with this thought, it will be clearer as you read on.)

Some buying modes for furniture that we can easily relate to

Buying mode 1: You have bought a new house, that is about to be handed over… you need new furniture, all of it.

Given the fact that most builders and interior designers slip on the timelines, you may like to have flexibility in delivery dates (one situation in life when you may actually want a late delivery!). If you are married, your spouse’s buy in the decision will be a must – in fact you will look forward to discussing the options with your spouse. The purchase requires high degree of agreement. Both the need and risk (of getting is wrong) are very high here.

Buying mode 2: You have been thinking about replacing that old Sofa

While you are looking to replace your old sofa, your need may not be urgent. You may replace if you get a suitable deal.  It’s like that Laddakh Holiday that you want to take – always desirable, never urgent, you move if either you get a discount or your best friend takes that holiday. Moderate need and moderate risk here.

Buying mode 3:  You have thoughts of adding a book rack to your room… but are no too sure

While adding a book rack for which you are not even sure of the need, a really attractive piece of furniture while you are on the website with nothing specific in mind may sway your decision. Low need and low risk for you.

Buying mode 4: You have just moved to Bangalore from New Delhi (from your parents house). Your wife is joining you 2 weeks from now, you need to order all new furniture

When you have your wife joining you in 2 weeks, the most critical thing for you may be the timeliness of delivery. Urgent need and high risk for you

Sip… (oh! you didn’t grab a coffee, grab it now :-))

What do buying modes have to do with design and content?

Everything! different buying modes have different content requirements – for example, while buying all new furniture for your new house, you are highly likely to want to see the furniture placed together in a setting so that you can figure out whether things gel with one another or not. If you are replacing old sofa, you want to sign up of the discounts newsletter… and so on.

Starting to make sense?

Now, to give more colour and complete the personas, layer the personality type of a person on top of the above interaction modes. I am demonstrating 2 examples below for UrbanLadder.

Persona 1- Rahul SinghRahul Singh

Rahul is 30 years old and is newly married (just 6 months ago). He is a bank manager with a fortune 500 company. His wife  Pooja is a QA engineer. Rahul is a very confident person. He is a natural leader and usually is at the forefront of decision making when in group situations. He considers himself a smart person and takes pride in his decisions.

Rahul has just moved to Bangalore from New Delhi where he was staying with his parents. He is currently staying in a company guest house which he needs to vacate in 7 days. He has rented a house for himself. He is looking to buy furniture and definitely needs to furnish his house within 6 days. He came across urbanladder.com website on facebook.  He decided to check it out. Lets see how Rahul’s persona impacts the design and content he would love and hate.

Rahul is checking out UrbanLadder and immediately likes the “Delivery by” date mentioned against the product items. This is a reassurance for him that he can find and order items that meet his delivery schedule. Screenshot below:

In fact he would also love to provide his location (Bangalore) upfront to that he gets precise delivery time indication. He does not have time to waste! something like the example below.

Furniture.com has an option to take you zip code on the product page itself (in addition to the checkout) so that more relevant content can be served upfront.  In the Indian context, city/ area names can be used instead of the zip codes.

You can easily imagine Rahul Singh has no interest in seeing “Sold out” items, given that he wants the stuff in next six days.

He would love it, if there was an feature to see only “In Stock” items.

Now, here is something seemingly small that will literally drive Rahul to the road looking for furniture in the “offline world”. Notice the text in red.

“Special discount for delayed delivery”. Oh no! he thinks… “thanks for the offer, but I cannot expect my newly wed wife to sleep on the floor for a few days.”

Now, to appeal to someone like Rahul (in his present situationthe below option by furniture.com is nearly perfect

Furniture com

As you can see in the above screen shot, furniture.com lets you browse “collections” by room type (for example you can browse a full collection of furniture for bedrooms). You can see items by by fastest delivery first. Oh how much Rahul would love such an option now. It would be an AHA! moment for him

Here is a collection in detail from furniture.com

For Rahul, landing a collection to his and his wife’s liking and with a discount on top of that is a real ‘aha’ moment. He would love the experience.

Persona 2 – Smriti Joshi

Smriti Joshi Druh ScoffImage by Druh Scoff

Smriti is a 55 year old college professor. She teaches Hindi literature in Mumbai university. She stays with her husband and mother in law in a 2 bedroom flat in Colaba, Mumbai. Her kids are studying in college and they stay in a hostel.  She is an easy going person by nature, and has lots of friends.

Smriti is an avid reader and has a big collection of books. She has been considering purchasing a book rack to neatly stack her collection. Considering space is rather limited, she is keen on a design that fits well. Size, looks and durability are he main criterion. She has been looking at a few furniture shops and has not liked any design so far and has almost forgotten about the idea when someone mentioned urbanladder.com to her.

What does Smriti immediately like on urbanladder.com? the following feature immediately helps in solving the size issue:

Urbanladder - a great feature that is hidden from the users
Urbanladder – a great feature that is hidden from the users

But she found this feature by chance! for some reason, this feature is hidden as one of the images in the image slide show. There should be a visible link to this feature, right above the fold.

She has not ordered a lot of stuff online in the past so another thing she finds reassuring is the free delivery, installation and cash of delivery option mentioned below the buy this now button

urbanladder - 360 degree view is another great feature that is hidden
urbanladder – 360 degree view is another great feature that is hidden

Another feature that Mrs Joshi likes is the 360 degree view

This again is hidden from the view like the size example above.

She does not mind seeing sold out items (unlike Rahul) and would definitely like to wait for something she likes to become available rather than compromise on her choice

urbanladder - sold out shelf
urbanladder – sold out shelf

Being a social person, she is looking for some testimonials from other people to get more confidence on urbanladder.com. Something like the following would be something she immediately appreciates:

schwans - even one social proof in context makes a big difference
schwans – even one social proof in context makes a big difference

schwans - even one social proof in context makes a big difference

Even one social proof in context is incredibly powerful for Smriti

Urban ladder does have social proof.. however it is not yet specific to a product (hope they will add it soon) and it needs to be above the fold!

Urbanladder.com would need at least 2 more personas to design and validate their website and content

Get your personas right – follow this method

In the above examples, I have demonstrated two possible personas of online furniture buyers. Here is the simple technique for developing personas:

Step 1: Identify circumstances (mode) in which people can buy from you (modes of buying): For example for furniture we identified that new furniture is frequently bought on moving to a new house or to a new location. It is also bought to replace old stuff and so on.

Similarly if we were selling Guitars online, we could identify that a new Guitar may be bought by a complete novice or by someone who is a master looking for a masterpeice.

This sort of stuff can be thought for selling anything – from medicines to Golf gear

Step 2:Identify four factors for each mode: Urgency of the purchase, how risky the purchase is for the buyer (financially or emotionally), does he or she need to consult others in the purchase and the amount of information required to complete the purchase.

Thus in the above furniture examples, it is quite risky (convenience wise and financially) and urgent to buy furniture for whole house by a certain date when you have moved to a new city without any furniture. The impact of delivery slippage is very high. Contrast this with a book shelf purchase, which is relatively a low risk and far less urgent item

Step 3: THEN think of personalities behind these purchases. Like an emotional and impulsive person versus logical and calm person. Both will have very different buying styles.

Step 4: Weave together personalities and buying modes to get your persoans. Such that you have a vivid description of a person AND a buying situation

NOW, think what CONTENT and features are needed for each of the above personalities and situations. Look at your website through their lenses. Leave empty chairs with these persons names in your design meetings (crazy, but impactful enough to try). Come out of your own shell

THIS is the foundation of designing a great web experience and a great business

Powerful, isn’t it?

Summing it up

The issue with personas has been use of stereotypes like young, old, rich, not so rich, big city/ small town (pfuu). You can see from the above that this is not the right way of doing personas.

Personas, when done right are incredibly powerful. They help you break the trap of your own thinking and step into customers shoes. Content or design without personas is direction less and you may end up building stuff for yourself or for your HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) as Avinash Kaushik puts it.

So, begin by identifying the personas for your business. If you are a running business and do not have personas identified, do so now. Remember to speak with your customer service staff while doing this exercise, they are the ones who speak regularly with your customers.

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