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Site Personas and the Dialogue Process


Site Personas are analogous to User Personas. Whereas User Personas represent typical inpiduals in your target user base, together with goals and motivations, the Site Persona represents the site, embodying its brand and its goals.

I often find it helpful to picture my web sites as information flowing both ways between the site and users. The Dialogue Process is a way to optimise your web site interactions by scripting them as conversations between your two types of persona.

Unless your site is literally a crude hierarchy of dumb data, Information Architecture isn't about inert structure.

People don't work like computers. We are social beings, our brains have evolved to adapt to a social environment. Whereas computers are very good at doing calculations based on strict rules and hard numbers, humans are very good at discerning meaning based on soft rules and using complex and incomplete information.

In order to survive, our species has learnt to communicate effectively using rich verbal and visual language. We've also learnt to interpret subtle clues from our environment to establish we're most likely to find what we want, and to avoid danger.

For the vast majority of sites, I think of IA in terms of "information in motion through dialogue".

Information in motion through dialogue

When using a web page, we don't carefully analyse its whole structure and decide the best route forward; we use our age-old survival skills to guess where we might find success. We don't always think logically, we move backwards and forwards, and we behave differently according to our context.

All this time, there is a mental conversation running in our minds. Very often when observing people using computers you'll hear them talk to the computer (spot if you do this yourself).

Common utterances might be:

These common phrases are just a small audible portion of the mental conversation that we all run all the time when using computers. We're having a dialogue with the computer, because that's how we work.

The key to designing websites for people to use successfully is to design them for the way people use websites. Because people use dialogue to communicate, a good way to plan your site is consciously to design it to be effectively usable through dialogue.

The site persona

You've already created primary personas that you'll use to represent your real visitors in the dialogue. I use another type of persona to represent the personality of the site itself. The dialogue process uses communication between visitor personas and the site persona.

A site persona is your model for the site's personality. It helps you visualise how a site should respond to user input and to exceptions, what tone of voice it uses to communicate, how much assistance it offers and when.


One model for site personas that I use frequently is Pierre, who is an imaginary concierge at a high-class hotel. He's the complete professional, completely devoted to one simple goal: his visitors' satisfaction.

When he does his job right, his visitors get what they want quickly and easily, which leaves them happier and more relaxed. When that happens, he's happy. He also gets very well rewarded, because he's the best in the world at what he does, and he deals with very important people.

What you'd notice about the way he does his job:

Who's your site persona?

Other site personas might be based on:

The most important thing about your site persona is that they can represent the characteristics of the site's brand. If you don't yet know what the site brand should project, now is the time to find out. Either speak to the site owner or their marketing chief, read brand guidelines, or if it's your site - make it up.

Write down the main characteristics that you wish to attach to your brand. These should cover the whole experience space, such as:

Your site persona can embody most of these characteristics, while always retaining a customer-focused attitude (because serving your customers is essential for you to achieve what you want).

The "best friend" factor

However your brand is described on paper, make sure there's a healthy dose of "best friend" factored into the mix.

Of course, a web site is never going to be your best friend, and you may never love it, but if a site takes on the characteristics of caring helpfulness, if it's fun, friendly, helpful and looks after you, you will have a nicer time using it.

The "best friend" factor focuses a brand on You, the site visitor. It's not about us or our supposed brand values. When my site embodies the best friend factor, the brand becomes about You: How can we help You achieve what You want, have a better day, be happy and fulfilled?

Traits of the best friend:

What kind of personality is helpful and embodies the characteristics of your brand? Picture them in the real world, interacting with real consumers. What do they look like? How do they stand, talk, listen? How much do they say? How forceful are they? What gives them satisfaction?

In some projects, I've had design teams print off touchstone sheets for the site persona as well as visitor personas, including a photo, name, and key characteristics or phrases they might say.

One of the major benefits of a site persona is: they're pro-actively helpful. You'll find it's much easier to come up with genuinely helpful ideas when you're playing the role of a service professional responding to a customer than a dumb system reacting logically to user inputs.

The dialogue process

As we've described, good information architecture facilitates effective two-way dialogue.

All dialogue reflects a personality behind it. If it is coherent and delivered in a consistent way, the personality of the site will be perceived as stronger and more reliable. Your site persona helps you achieve consistency.

Of course, this 'dialogue' doesn't just use words. Sites also communicate to visitors in the language of web design (using layout, imagery, colour etc.). Visitors respond through short instructions (links & buttons) and forms.

Overview of the dialogue process

  1. Start with a primary persona and one of their scenarios.
  2. Play the scene featuring your primary persona and the site persona, which starts at the persona's entry point, and finishes when the persona reaches her goal.
  3. Write a scenario script that details each communication by the visitor persona and the site persona, including the visitor persona's mental commentary.
  4. Repeat for your other scenarios, and other personas.
  5. Review and refine, asking:
    • How can the interaction be made more succinct?
    • Can any dialogue be anticipated and avoided (site intelligence)?
    • Is there any scope for confusion? How would the site persona help the visitor make it through smoothly?
    • What errors could possibly occur? How can the site persona best respond, in a way that increases the visitor's trust?

The "Review and refine" step above is the pinnacle of the entire design process. This is your opportunity to make the greatest breakthroughs, gain the maximum competitive advantage, and discover those wonderful ideas that make your site that bit easier and more pleasurable to use.

Examples of optimising with the dialogue process

Maximising system intelligence is the single area that provides the greatest opportunity to differentiate excellent web products from the pedestrian mainstream.

It takes relatively little forethought, and it can be just as easy to develop as cruder, ruder functions.

"Did you find your answer?"

In FAQs, it's great to add: "If we didn't answer your question, please tell us using the form below. If you provide your email address, we'll send you a response as soon as possible."

"Perhaps you meant…"

Google suggests alternative searches for search terms that may be misspelled.

"We don't have a page of that name. One of these articles might be the one you're looking for…"

It's not hard for a computer to pull up a list of similar pages when it can't find the one you asked for. This is so much more caring than a downright rude "404 - File not found".

"Can I order you a taxi to get to the show?"

Anticipating of the visitor's next need, sometimes before they've thought of it themselves (Pierre would think about this).

"Here are some other articles/products/sites… you might like"

More anticipation, taking the work out of the visitor's next step.

"I see you've used us before… Let me pull up your details."

Another sign of a great concierge is recognising returning customers, and remembering the important details that make them feel cared for.

"I'm sorry, there has been a problem on our side. I'll keep trying for you, and I can email you when we've fixed the problem."

Basic humility and proactive problem-solving are proven to increase customer confidence in a web site.


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