Photos of people representing different user groups

Creating Effective Digital Personas

30 January 2019

Planning a successful website starts with understanding who your users are and what they need from the site. One of the most popular ways to do that is by putting together a user persona, a fictional representation of your user group that includes everything from basic demographic details to information about their lifestyle, habits, needs, and frustrations. Although user personas are primarily used for digital marketing, they don’t always include all the information needed for larger digital projects, like websites, digital strategies, or apps. It’s not that demographics and lifestyle information aren’t important when working on a digital project – they definitely are – but most user personas don’t focus on digital behavior and that is some of the most crucial information to have. I prefer to use a hybrid of a user persona and digital behavior data, leading to what I call a “digital persona.”

Examples of standard user personas

Digital is different

People behave differently online than they do offline. The way we think, act, and process information changes when we’re on a digital device or a particular website. If a persona doesn’t take this into account, then it won’t be accurate to the user it is representing. So how exactly does digital behavior differ from offline behavior?

  1. Attention spans are shorter: According to a 2015 Microsoft study, the average attention span is now 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. With so many platforms and devices competing for our attention, users need to see something that really interests them in order to stay focused on it. The same study found that there are generational differences when it comes to attention spans. For example, 77% of people aged 18 – 24 said they will reach for their phones when they are bored, compared with only 10% of people over 65. Of those who were 18-24, 75% of them also admitted to using portable devices while watching TV, which means their attention is often split and they tend to consume more content than older generations. In order to keep your users’ attention, you’ll need to understand what type of content interests them and how long you have to get them to the content they want to see. This information will help guide your design, information architecture, and content strategy.
  2. Reading becomes scanning: People change their reading habits when they’re online. A person who will happily read a printed article in its entirety, will scan the same article when it is online. The Nielsen Norman Group estimates that “on the average web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.” That means content needs to be written in such a way that people can scan it easily, with headers and bullet/numbered lists peppered throughout the content. In order to improve the scanability of your website’s content, you’ll need to understand what your users are looking for on a page and how much content they actually read. That information will let you structure each page so users can find the content they want quickly and easily.
  3. Digital amnesia is real: According to a Nuance survey, 63% of Americans say they “outsource” their memory to their digital devices. That means the things people used to remember two decades ago, like phone numbers, important events, or day-to-day tasks, are now saved on a device rather than in our memories. How does that impact your website?  You’ll need to understand what your users need from your site and make sure it is easy to find over and over again. That includes structuring your navigation in a way that makes sense, and including bookmarking, favoriting, or download functionality where appropriate.
  4. Decisions are made differently: The internet provides a lot of information to help people make decisions, from review sites to the ability to search online for a product or service. While some user groups will rely heavily on digital content to make a decision about your product or service, others will prefer to use more traditional methods like going to a brick-and-mortar store or speaking to a representative over the phone. Other user groups will prefer a mix of the two. Understanding how your users rely on digital content when making a decision will help you figure out what content to include, what other digital platforms you should use, and what calls-to-action to include on your site (call us now for a quote, order online, submit a form for more information, etc).
  5. Conversion funnels include multiple devices: A conversion funnel illustrates how people move through the different stages of becoming your customer, from learning about you (awareness) through interest, desire, action and retention stages. People may use different devices or platforms throughout your conversion funnel and that means they’ll be engaging with different types of content in the process. You need to identify what platforms and devices your users are on during each stage, so you can provide appropriate messaging and calls to action that motivate them to move through the funnel.  
A "prospective student" digital persona for a university. It includes user details and digital behavior information.

What should a digital persona include?

A good user persona will start off with the basics – demographics, lifestyle details, needs, pain points, brands they use, etc. This helps to paint a picture of who that user is and how your product or service can fit in their lives. In addition to this information, it’s important to include the following:

  1. Digital consumption: What devices does this user prefer? How long does this user spend online? What channels and platforms to they use every day? Do they use internet speak, memes, emojis? This information will help you understand how users might view your site (ie: will they view it on a small mobile screen or a large desktop), how much opportunity you’ll have to reach them, where you are most likely to reach them, and the content style to use.
  2. Conversion content: What channels and types of content do your users turn to when making a decision? Are any of the main steps in their conversion funnel made offline? What actions do your users need to take on the site or app? By understanding this, you’ll be able to tailor your messaging to the right people at the right time. For example, if your users like to begin researching a product or service on social media, then social ads or influencer marketing may be a better option for you than SEO or search engine advertising.
  3. Critical content: What messaging and content will answer the user’s needs and frustrations? Providing your users with content that is relevant and easy to find will help them move through your conversion funnel faster, and will also encourage them to return to your site. By including this in your digital persona, you’ll have a better understanding of what content you need to create in order to engage with your users.
  4. Internet access: It is important to to figure out what type of internet access your users have because not everyone can get online easily. Some users may not have an internet connection at home, and will need to use their smartphone or go to the library if they want to get online. Others will have limited bandwidth at work (eg: internet connections at schools are notoriously slow so if you are trying to reach a teacher or student during school hours then your site needs to be optimized for speed). Other users will have out-of-date browsers so viewing modern sites may not give them the best experience. (This is often the case with large corporations whose IT moves extremely slowly. If your users work at this sort of company and need to access your content from their office then they may still use IE11 so your site will need to be optimized for them). You’ll also want to consider whether your users will be accessing your content from behind a firewall, in which case email marketing and social media may be ineffective since those users may be prevented from seeing that content in the first place. Knowing this information will allow you to understand when and where your users will see your content so you can give them the best experience on the device, browser, and bandwidth they are using.
  5. Site Usage: How frequently will your users return to your site? Why do they return? While this may sound like a silly question at first, not all sites are built for frequent visits. For example, a law firm’s website may only be visited a couple of times before a user gets in touch and begins an offline relationship with that firm. Similarly, an organization that offers grants to nonprofits may see the bulk of its website visits during the months that applications are being accepted. Alternatively, if you do have users that return to your site regularly, or even daily, consider how you can improve their experience. Would they benefit from a website that is a progressive web app (PWA) so they can access it from their phone’s home screen and when they are offline?  Understanding how often your users return to your site will help you determine how much new content to add and what returning visitors want to read.

By including digital behavior details in your user persona, you can start to make educated decisions on your design, content, functionality, information architecture, and digital channels. The result will be a website, app or digital strategy that is tailored to your users while helping you achieve your goals.

Looking for help understanding your users?

Contact me today to find out how I can help with your next round of user research. 

About the author
Veronica Bagnole
Veronica Bagnole

Veronica has worked in digital marketing for 8 years and has held positions in digital agencies in the US and Great Britain. She has an MA in Globalization & Communication and spent 3 years in the Peace Corps.​

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