How to play to your audience

When it comes to Web site look, feel and functionality, many companies have let technology, development tools and hunches do the driving rather than data about customers’ needs. But with e-commerce maturing, some B2C (and B2B) sites have become overloaded with information leading to confused navigation, grandfathered dead ends and, ultimately, frustrated end users. Worse, the site might be playing to the wrong audience, especially if your business model has changed or your audience has matured. If it’s time to update your website, “persona-based design” can put customers–rather than servers, GIFs or programming languages–at the center of discussions on designing user interfaces.

With persona-based design, ethnographic researchers study the behavior of current and potential customers by conducting interviews with them and by observing not only their use of the website but their daily routines. Based on these findings, research, design and development teams draw up anywhere from two to five different character sketches–known as personas–which represent basic types of customers.

When Medco Health Solutions Inc. undertook a redesign of its website,, in 2002, the pharmacy benefits manager hired a Web design company that employed the persona-based methodology to gear the site toward an aging population and to untangle its labyrinthine taxonomy. Steve Gold, the former CIO of the Franklin Lakes, N.J.-based company, says he saw persona-based design as a way to bring end users to life for the digital design group and pertinent business units. “We wanted the developers and workgroups to have empathy for the individuals they were building the software systems for, having them rally around somebody tangible as opposed to just building a website in a vacuum, which is the more conventional way of doing it.”

Working with Cooper, a San Francisco-based Web company that developed the persona-based methodology, Medco Health designers created four fictional characters whose lives and ailments were based on their own research as well as real people Cooper interviewed. They used these characters to guide the redesign of and invoked them during meetings or alone in their cubicles when hashing out the layout of the new site. By focusing their redesign efforts on a particular demographic and by conducting in-depth research into this segment’s lifestyles, health issues and Web literacy, Medco Health was able to create a website that met its users’ needs–without disagreements based on gut feelings about what customers wanted and needed. Because the site was so well attuned to the reasons why customers visited, the company was also able to minimize the number of costly changes it had to make to the site after actual users tested it.

Did it work? Since the redesign, Medco Health has increased the number of prescriptions it processes through its website by 26 percent and has boosted online sales.

What follows are’s steps through persona-based design to ensure that the new site would meet customers’ needs and be easy for them to use. It’s a formula that will work, whether you’re trying to reach Maude–or a Tiffany or a Raul.

Lost in Space

1. Define the problem. According to ComScore Media Metrix, is one of the largest e-commerce sites, but in the five years it was live before the redesign, it had become so loaded with bells and whistles that consumers could no longer quickly and easily find what they were looking for. Users had such a hard time locating information about their prescriptions on the site that they began contacting the help desk for assistance. The number of abandoned shopping carts was rising. But Medco Health really wanted users to order through the site–the cost of processing orders through a call center ranges in the dollars versus cents for the Web, according to former CIO Gold.

The average age of a user is 54 (and not getting any younger). Forty-four percent of all users are over 55. And, according to Gold, “they’re the folks who are using a disproportionately high number of meds. They are our most valuable customers. That puts us in a situation where we have to make sure we’re meeting the specific needs of the senior population.”

Kim Goodwin, vice president and general manager of Cooper, who worked on the redesign, summed the site up as a little overwhelming. “Before the redesign, there were a lot of very small, very dense fonts that (even) I had a hard time reading, and I’m not 65 or even close,” she says. “There was a lot of fairly low contrast in colors. There were a lot of ways to get from one place to another, a lot of redundant navigation. It was pretty easy to get lost.”

2. Gather the data. Web design experts agree that intimately understanding the characteristics and behavioral qualities of your most important constituency is an efficient and effective way to design your website. And that’s the starting point for persona-based design. Cooper extensively interviewed approximately 40 people, identified by several market research firms around the country as typical Medco Health customers, about their privacy concerns and the reasons why they did or did not order prescriptions online. The research team also observed some of these individuals on the Web and offline.

“The behavioral data that serves as the foundation of the personas is what really makes them work,” says Goodwin. While you could create personas out of whole cloth, they won’t carry the same weight, she adds, and they wouldn’t accurately reflect your users.

3. Develop the personas. After conducting the field research in October 2001, the team from Cooper aggregated that data about the different customers, their illnesses and behavioral patterns to shape it into individual personas or character sketches that represented four basic types of customers, their needs and behaviors. Each persona was given an approximately 500-word life story to help create an emotional bond between the developers and the people for whom they were redesigning the site.

As Goodwin says, the purpose of the personas is “to get everyone thinking in a unified way from a user’s perspective.” She says most companies gather their marketing and Web teams in a conference room and argue about what users want. Sometimes they have data to substantiate their claims, but it’s usually based on dubious research or intuition. Companies that take that kind of disorganized approach “do version 1.2 and 1.3 and 1.4,” she says. “They keep trying to get it right, and it costs them a fortune. It also costs them a market opportunity. Someone else probably figured it out while they were iterating. By using the personas, you cut through all that.” In fact, she says, clients have told her they’ve cut development time by as much as half using persona-based design.

Harley Manning, a principal analyst with Forrester Research who studies software and Web user interface design, concurs. “By focusing everyone on the same understanding of who they’re designing for, you eliminate a lot of the battles that occur over what should be on the homepage,” he says.

4. Meet and greet. Once the personas were drawn up, everyone on the redesign team gathered in Medco Health’s cafeteria to “meet” Maude Baruso, Frank Anderson, Chris Bell and Sandra Reizler. The company’s Senior Director of E-Commerce Marketing Vicente Caride and his colleague on Medco’s business side, Amy Foley, came up with the idea to have different people on the team pretend to be the various characters. One man donned a cardigan and wig to pretend he was Maude, acting out a script that was designed to introduce the rest of the team to Maude and her needs. A pop quiz–“Who takes Celebrex twice a day for arthritis of the hands and hips” and “True or False: Sandra uses a computer at home and in the office”–made sure that everyone involved knew the personas intimately.

Caride says this exercise was done early on in the redesign process, in November 2001, before they had even started prototyping, so that designers would have time to steep in the personalities of Medco Health customers. “The earlier in the process you introduce the personas, the better defined your path will be through to completion,” says Caride. “If you introduce them later on, you’re going to introduce new forks in the road. We wanted to know what the road was going to look like.”

The redesign team purchased photos to go with the persona descriptions from a stock agency to distribute to team members for their cubicles, and blew them up to poster size to put in meeting rooms. They also set up e-mail addresses for each of the personas, like, and pretended to exchange e-mail with them.

5. Work with the personas. Soon, the personas weren’t just pictures on the walls. Caride says staff brought the personas along to meetings. For example, when Maude suggested she would get confused by the process for reordering a prescription and that more reassurance had to be built into the process, Chris would speak up on behalf of users like him to make sure the site wouldn’t be so full of explanations that it would slow down the process and alienate computer-savvy users.

When discrepancies between different types of users’ needs came up, the designers generally opted to build in the explanations, knowing that if Maude got confused, she’d leave the site and likely never come back. They knew that if folks like Maude could get through the site, so too could the Chris Bell.

Hitting the Bull’s-eye

The big payoff came when the finished prototypes were vetted with actual users in a usability testing lab: Designers had to make only minor changes to the pages, most pertaining to language. “Using this method, we consistently find fewer problems that you need to fix after running a usability test,” says Goodwin.

And that saves money. “It’s a more efficient way to design websites with less iterations and less changes because we know up front what we’re designing for,” says Caride. “From that, you get savings.”

But the really impressive numbers have shown up since the redesigned site went live in December 2002. Medco Health has seen a 33 percent increase in the number of transactions and a 26 percent increase in the number of prescriptions ordered online. The number of abandoned shopping carts has decreased by 13 percent. Based on the entire number of logins, the number of e-mails from users to the help desk with questions about the site has decreased by 18 percent. In June 2003, ComScore Media Metrix reported that seniors 65 years and older spent more time (approximately 21 minutes) on and viewed more pages (approximately 31) in a month than any other health website, including Yahoo Health, MSN Health, and

“The monetary reward you reap from a more efficient process, you also see in the results,” says Caride. “You get savings from an efficient design once, but if you have increasing traffic and loyalty and satisfaction, that just keeps multiplying.”