Rethinking Personas for Small Business, Part 2: Be the Bieber

This article is part 2 of a two part series on rethinking personas for small business. You can read part 1 here.

Your Use of Personas is Based on Fear

There. I said it.

If you’re in favor of personas, I think it’s because you believe that by not using them, you’re leaving money on the table.

Well I’m here to convince you that by using personas, chances are very good that you ARE in fact leaving money on the table. Simply put, I think you’re hurting your bottom line.

When you see the word ‘personas’, you should be afraid. Be very afraid.

Your Fear Personified

The late, great, Mitch Hedberg had a classic stand up bit:

I’m not into sports. I mean, I like Gatorade but that’s about as far as it goes. By the way, you don’t have to be sweaty and holding a basketball to enjoy a Gatorade. You could just be a thirsty dude. Gatorade forgets about this demographic. I’m thirsty for absolutely no reason. Other than the fact that liquid has not touched my lips for some time. Can I have a Gatorade too, or does that lightning bolt mean “No”?

If you believe in personas, when you hear that you think, “Hot damn, good thinking! Johnson! Let’s rework that lightning bolt and get an ad of a dude just being thirsty and play it everywhere. In no way will this distract from 30 years of sports marketing.”

Has the fact that Gatorade has exclusively marketed itself to the sports market kept you from drinking one?

I’m not on a diet. So why am I drinking Diet Coke? Shouldn’t they have a message (and experience) tailored for me? Oh, that’s right. Coke Zero. But whose market did Coke Zero cannibalize? I bet it’s Diet Coke’s market share. And which one am I drinking today? Diet Coke.

So what gives? Why does Mitch want a Gatorade and I want a Diet Coke even though the primary marketing messages for these products don’t specifically apply to us? And isn’t it highly weird that he wants Gatorade, not Powerade and I want a Diet Coke, not Coke Zero or Diet Pepsi?

Doesn’t this go against all of the available data suggesting that behavioral market segmentation is a good idea?

The Truth as I See It

I believe that 99% of websites exist within a paradigm where designing to the paradigm is more important that designing for the user. The use of personas in websites is unnecessary. Everything can be defined with the use of flows, paths, and goals.

[highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]Personas, if they have any use at all, are best used during the product or service development stage of the process. By the time we get around to building a website, the heavy lifting needs to be done.[/highlight]

The goal of a web designer is to understand your product or service and to create a website that allows your users to buy, sell, consume, share, or return your product or service.

[highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]These acts: buying, selling, consuming, sharing, and returning are all established online behaviors. Most businesses don’t need to push the envelope in these arenas. They need tried-and-true web behaviors that are going to work.[/highlight]

And the Internet is filled with them!

There are style guidelines, color guidelines, syntax guidelines, word efficacy guidelines, etc. There are guidelines for how to write guidelines. We know how to build a freakin’ website. It doesn’t take a persona to show us the best-practices for web development.

Take a Lesson from the Record Industry

It’s no secret that the music industry is based on making hit records. Long gone are the days where most labels would sign niche talent. The only labels who do that today are themselves small niche businesses. Sony, BMG and the like are only interested if you can potentially move millions of units.

If you look at the records that sell millions of copies, you’ll see that for some reason they just about always appeal to a wide audience.

Take a song like “Moves Like Jagger”. It premiered during the first season of NBC’s “The Voice”, was a hit at radio, and can be currently heard as background music in grocery stores around the country. You know if you’ve made it into grocery stores that you’re reaching a wide audience. Like “everybody” wide.

You should too.

The persona people remind me of the cool kids who know about music that you’re not hip to and they look down on you for not knowing about it. They look at the pop charts and see who is selling a lot of records and declare loudly that “they suck”. Then they head off to their small venue and enjoy their music with a small crowd.

Meanwhile Justin Bieber is selling out arenas and getting paid because he appeals to a wide audience. Oh, and his video for “Baby” is the #1 most watched video on the Internet of all time.

If it were up to you, would you rather have Justin Bieber’s revenue or Joe Cool’s band’s revenue?

A Walking Persona Disaster

The big mistake that companies make is using personas when developing a website.

This is, as Newman is fond of saying, an example of problem seeking over problem solving. (The original quote is from Marty Gage at Lextant.)

When we seek out problems, especially at the beginning of the process, we end up introducing distracting solutions into the final website. And because of this, the website always under-performs.

As an example, let’s look at LessAccounting.

LessAccounting, for the unfamiliar, is an online accounting software app for small businesses.¬†They’ve hired me to redesign their brochure site for them and if you’ve been following along at home, you’re already familiar with my research and wireframe work for them from previous posts.

The problem with their current website, at least as I see it, is that it has been persona’d to death. Their website appeals to so many specific people that it doesn’t appeal to anybody.

Look at the above picture. How many different messages can you spot.

I count at least seven.

Look again.

  1. Current Quickbooks users
  2. People who have to play with the demo
  3. Wise asses
  4. Business owners who are new to bookkeeping (the video gives an overview of what bookkeeping is)
  5. A beginner bookkeeper
  6. A novice bookkeeper
  7. An advanced bookkeeper

This to me is craziness. It’s total schizophrenia.

This page doesn’t clearly state the Big 3:

  • What am I?
  • Who am I for?
  • What is my value proposition?

Instead the design fractures that message by providing answers to a bunch of problems that haven’t happened yet and by asking questions about me.

I’m suffocating in a sea of choice and I don’t know what they want me to do.

I guess I’m supposed to decide whether I’m a beginner, a novice, or an expert at bookkeeping – something that until this point I’ve managed to get through life without considering.

I’m a little off balance because I can’t figure out why defining my bookkeeping skill level matters. That part is very unclear to me at this point. And while it might sound weird for me to feel off balance, it’s a natural psychological response to the fear of losing. I don’t want to make the wrong choice.

What I could use right now is clarity. I want to make the right choice. But I’m not confident that I will because I’m confused. I don’t know which click will lead to making the “right” choice.

I don’t know what you want me to do. I’m on your front page and already I’m lost.

This is what’s known as a bad thing.

A Call for Clarity

When I did my redesign, I did so without any customer input. This is a fact that I struggled with philosophically. Ultimately I decided that doing competitor research was adequate. After all, there are bigger players in this market. Why not learn from them?

What I wanted to do was to control the message. My feeling is that when somebody goes to a website, they have a certain amount of energy that they are willing to exert to find what they are looking for on a website before they will leave. The total amount of energy that somebody starts with is mostly dictated by the kind of website you have. In the case of LessAccounting, it was my feeling that people would have a minimum of energy to get through the website.

Everything about bookkeeping is a drag. That’s why LessAccounting leads with “we just suck less”. Bookkeeping sucks. It’s not a secret.

As you can imagine, reasonable people want to engage in this whole process as little as possible. Therefore, people who are thinking of using LessAccounting are likely to have little patience for any kind of confusion on the website. The whole bookkeeping process is irritating to them and so there’s not a whole lot of goodwill on LessAccounting’s behalf going on when a user shows up on the LessAccounting’s frontpage.

LessAccounting deals with this problem by speaking right to it: WE SUCK LESS!

Control the Message

What I want to do is to grease the rails, to take control, and to truly make it suck less.

Where the website currently gives you choice, I want to take it away.

Where they want to show you more, I want to show you less.

And more than that, I want to change their marketing message.

Currently, they like to pick fights with their market competitors. Quickbooks in particular. In boxing this is known as “punching up”.

It’s a good look for an energy drink, but not for a financial app.

Financial programs should have the demeanor of a trusted financial adviser: conservative, smart, and reassuring. You want to feel like your financial adviser already has money. The bro-speak undermines that image.

In place of the bro-speak, I put direct positive language. This is evident in all the headlines as well as in the footer where it says, “We answer all of our own phones. Call the number, get a person. That’s the way it should be.” That’s a tangible example of how LessAccounting truly does make it “suck less”. It’s not necessary to say it directly. Instead, infuse the idea and bake it into the entire experience.

By being what you profess to be, you fix the very problems you purport to solve.

I don’t mean for that to sound like I just made the most obvious statement of the century. Rather, what I mean is that the core values of the company have to be baked in at every level.

LessAccounting already answers their own phones. Great customer service is part of their organizational structure.

By knowing thyself – a key takeaway from Part 1 in this series – it’s possible to more fully realize it on the website.

And this is how I realized it:

What I Like About It

The message on this page is consistent and flows from box to box and it answers the Big 3 questions:

  • What am I? – “Small Business loves LessAccounting – It’s everything you need in a small business book keeping app and nothing you don’t.”
  • Who am I for? – “Small businesses”
  • What is my value proposition? – there are 5 reasons listed on the frontpage and 18 more in the tour

It also adds in the icons for publications where LessAccounting has been featured as trust building images but to be fair, the current site has those too, albeit further down on the page than I do.

There’s a flow to the entire website. It looks as though it’s structured to push people to try the app as quickly as possible. There are four big green buttons (and a button in the top menu) that make this suggestion. But, we know that psychologically most people are going to click the “tour” link. It’s on the page as often as the “try it” button is but the risk is less for the user. So it’s likely what they will click.

The tour (not pictured) is three pages long and is used in a liner fashion. On each page there’s one main point about the app that’s supported by six chunks of content. At the end of the tour, the user has spent 2-3 minutes learning about the app and is now prepared to try it. The obvious next step is to click the green button. In fact, it’s the only next step.

And that’s by design.

I’m controlling the narrative.

Technically you can click around the footer and explore a bit but for the most part, the website has been boiled down to its essence: A frontpage, a tour, and a pricing page. A demo is available but only with an email address and it’s a guided demo rather than an open-ended tour.

No matter what you do, each step of the way, it’s managed.

Gone are the personas. The website uses language that applies to everybody. Gone is the confusion. And all that’s left is a clear presentation of what the app is, who it’s for, and it’s value proposition.

That, to me, is what ux is about. Clarity.


If you’re building or rebuilding a website, kick personas to the curb. They don’t help here. They’re meant for the product development cycle, not the website design cycle.

Know your product. Build your website to fully showcase that product and control the narrative.

Find a broad message that works and infuse it throughout your website.

Do not split your main message and infuse all of those messages throughout your website. You’ll confuse the crap out of everybody.

Use goals, flows, and broadly meaningful narratives to drive users down your critical path.

Think pop, not punk.

Be the Bieber.

6 comments on “Rethinking Personas for Small Business, Part 2: Be the Bieber

  1. Pingback: Rethinking Personas for Small Business, Part 1: Signal, Not Stratification | A Better User Experience

  2. Here is a point about conventions and best practices regarding web development.
    Following and improving on conventions is a form of iteration – Slow, methodical improvements based on user behavior observation and testing. Analysis and persona creation doesn’t really belong here in the iterative process. They belong more to the innovative process. Persona creation takes place long before the website construction – in the user research and ‘front end analysis’ phase of the project.

    Main point –
    Conventions = Iteration, start with best practice and slowing improve. Persona creation / UX user research = innovation, getting to basic understanding of the product and market and user needs and goals.

    The mistake is using personas to develop a website, rather than using personas to develop a message – targeted, widely appealing, revenue generating message.

    Problem seeking = User research, early in the design process, personas

    Problem solving = UX design, later in the development process, no personas only message derived from personas.

  3. Pingback: Better User Experience Podcast #28: Final Thoughts on Personas | A Better User Experience

  4. I totally agree that UX personas are best used at the product level. That are at their most effective when you use them to understand what the mindset, motivations and goals are of your target audience. These then can inform how you design your tasks, flows, and goals.

    There are still some uncommon instances where the tasks your designing for are in-depth enough to benefit from personas. However, these tasks are usually more of the complex workflow in an enterprise environment variety rather than website for the general public.

    At this task level, I’ve always found a far more usual tool are Mental Models (written about by Indi Young, Mental Models – And these actually dovetail with personas really effectively if you need to go to that level.

    Using personas to design a website, is like trying to pick between designing for people who primarily navigate using search vs those who browse. In most cases there is no such divide between people, everybody does both, it just depends on what task they are undertaking. Using personas for these isn’t that useful, as a design you should just focus on designing both well. Having said that, if you already have them from an earlier phase of the project it can’t hurt to refer back to them every now and then to see if you can tweak the design to really fit their needs.

    • Frank, to be honest with you, I’m not sure. I gave my work to them and they chose not to use it.

      It happens sometimes. It could be for a ton of reasons: maybe they didn’t believe the data? Maybe they decided to go in a different direction? Maybe they didn’t like the work?

      If I had to guess, I’d say that they’ve always had strong leadership that had a very particular vision for the company and that the data I presented them wasn’t convincing enough in their minds to continue changing and updating their site.

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