Customer Storytelling at the Heart of Business Success

“Personas and scenarios tell honest stories that are sculpted from diverse and comprehensive sets of data.”Executive Summary

As most of us know by now, customer personas and scenarios are vehicles for helping an organization continuously keep their customers in their line of sight. Traditional segmentation identifies and categorizes a current or potential audience based upon common characteristics, including demographics, attitudes, behavior, transactions, frequency of interaction, spend, and more. They are discovered by “doing the math,” which may include data aggregation, cluster analysis, factor analysis, and other statistical methods applied to large sample sets. And then segments are given catchy names like Savvy Skeptics, Active Balancers, Indulgent Nutritionist, or Trade-Uppers. When done right, segments are statistically derived from the analysis and synthesis of quantitative data and are a solid foundation for customer understanding.

We create personas to build upon that platform by bringing the individuals within those segments to life. These are prototypical, but fundamentally real, stories of the multidimensional lives of specific customers. Of course they can also be about employees, partners, competitive customers, the press, and others, but for simplicity and consistency, let’s call them customers. These are specific customers with names and faces, but they also have an underlying implicit business agenda-that is they may be “the most profitable customer three years from now” or “the customer that we want to align with our brand,” or “the customer that shops for a product online and then purchases it in the store.” Their stories include topics such as demographics and psychographics, but also include mindsets, motivations, perceptions, personal quotes, actions, desires, measurable attributes and more. Their stories are crafted from real-world business intelligence, the sources of which may range from online surveys to channel-specific transactional data to descriptions given by in-store sales associates.

This report discusses how the Arc Worldwide’s Experience Planning group uses storytelling and multidimensional customer-based stories to provide relevance, direction, and resonance in today’s business planning landscape.

We feel, as do many of our professional peers, that they are a vital tool to provide guidance to and inform decision-making within an organization. Quite often, they are equally useful as a long-term, internal organizational tool. In our design and development culture and process, they are more than just a step in the product, application, or service development process. We have seen them deeply effect the planning of numerous organizations including those involved in product development, service development and delivery, marketing, communications, and customer service, to name a few. The decisions that customer personas and scenarios inform may include new product and service pursuits, details of product and service strategy, marketing strategies, customer relationship management frameworks, media placement and more. Personas and scenarios tell honest stories that are sculpted from diverse and comprehensive sets of data. These stories place the customer and their wants, needs, emotions, and behaviors at the center of a roadmap that charts current and future businesses success.

Within our personas and scenarios, the people and their stories are not arbitrary. They are stories of the lives of our client’s current and potential customers, and they serve as comprehensive guides to how our clients should interact with those customers, in the moment or over a lifetime, to profit their business. Three years ago, personas and scenarios were “a process step” in our iterative, user-centered development process, whereas today they are the platform upon which many of our insights are communicated, and our solutions are modeled. Over the past few years, they have risen in importance and become a primary tool for communicating data analysis, strategic business frameworks, new product and service concepts, and cross-channel brand experiences. We gauge this positive change by the frequency by which they are requested by internal team members and our clients, as well their prolific use by both.

The customer at the center
The best product and application design strategies are created when a team first gains direct understanding of the people who will use the end product-those people that will actually interact with applications, products, and environments to achieve desired goals-and then shapes strategies and solutions around those individuals (or groups or companies). An understanding of the customer is at the heart of every good business. That understanding should inform the company’s product and service development, its marketing strategy, its sales strategy, its mergers and acquisitions, its positioning within the marketplace, and even its organizational structure.

All business decisions impact customers. Customers have real lives, real challenges, and real desires. Businesses have day-to-day and long-term goals of revenue generation, profit margin, market penetration, market, and brand value. We use customer observation, empathy, measurement, and ultimately understanding and predictability to spark new ideas and provide comfort and/or reassurance with strategic and tactical business decisions. The ROI of business decisions ought to be a reflection of satisfying both business and customer desires in mutually beneficial ways. Customer-centric discussions, strategy and results continue to increase their prevalence in the boardrooms. Personas are a clear, comprehensive, human way to tell those stories.

Most importantly, identify who your customers are
Segmentation may identify who your customers are, but companies must also work to prioritize those segments. Through the combination of quantitative and qualitative methods that explore attitudes, behaviors, expectations, and trends, we are able to recognize patterns in people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. From those patterns, we are able to identify their potential value to the company, their spending trends over time, and their potential to connect with a brand messages for many years. Our experience has been that, by adding these dimensions or attributes to the personas and scenarios, they can be used to inform change within various parts of a business including product planning, budget allocation, marketing strategy, customer support and more. Some examples of these attributes could include a brand campaign with media messaging strategy or a planned change in the company’s enterprise-wide development platform.

Brands must stay flexible in their ability to shape their meaning and offering to appeal to the right customers at the right time. This requires brands to have a conceptual breadth and dynamic nature such that they can configure themselves according to a customer’s needs as that customer interacts with diverse channels or touch-points. Industries such as retail, financial services, automotive, consumer packaged goods, and travel and leisure are continuously testing new brand messages and launching new brands to better fit with changing customers, market shifts, and social and cultural trends.

An evolution of personas and scenarios
The use of personas and scenarios is shifting to reflect the diversity of customers’ lives within the greater context of today’s business landscape. This human-centered process of planning and informing decision-making is being embraced by companies large and small. Every week we read articles about the way personas are used within an organization and their impact, from retail chains redesigning stores to reflect customer behaviors, to hotel chains designing services for different types of travelers, to financial service offerings that are simultaneously tailored to your lifestyle and specific life stage. On the surface, these are customer stories that illustrate mindsets, emotions, needs, tasks, and channel usage. They are communicated through narrative stories, task flows, charts of data, imagery, functional lists, and often personal quotes and resonant anecdotes. Below the surface, they are the stories of a company-how that company wants to be perceived, the experiences they want to enable, who they want to serve, and what constitutes their success. Brands, product and service offerings, customer service and cross-channel experiences demand to be crafted through a lens of whimsy, insight, pressures, perception, and unwavering consumer expectations.

Personas and scenarios can effectively tell stories of change over time. They can tell stories of what brand experiences customers have today, what we would like their experiences to be tomorrow, and “hey, what if?” These scenarios are not guarantees, but well-informed predictions of the future business-customer interaction and relationships.

Beginning a few years ago and continuing into the future, the use of personas and scenarios within our Experience Planning group and global marketing solutions company will continue to broaden in dimension, usefulness, and most importantly, business impact. The storytelling techniques that we use to communicate and predict the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of customers as they experience and interact with a company are useful in a breadth of business contexts. The following is a list of shifts or evolutions that we have experienced in our application of personas and scenarios to the business landscape. They continue to grow in complexity, vision, and usefulness in various business contexts.

Past use Current and future use
Product-focused > Business-focused
User task-oriented > Customer lifecycle-oriented
Software development tool > Strategy development tool
Tactical > Strategic
Use case tool > Business case tool
Single-channel > Multi-channel
Individual > Interconnected and community-based
New product concept > New categories of products
Anecdotal success > Success through measured business impact
Associated with a product > Associated with multiple divisions of a company
Customer-focused > Customer service-focused
Application-focused > Message, channel, frequency and media-focused
Static, one-time artifact > Living, dynamically shifting stories

The storytelling of business change

Product-focused > Business-focused
In the past, personas and scenarios have been used by single product, application or platform groups. Today, beyond product development groups, they have found their way into marketing, customer service, human resources, information technology, and sales. Many of our clients use them to introduce new employees to “their customers.” From poster-sized wall hangings to coffee mugs, these stories solidify an organization’s focus on the right customers. Part of the persona development process includes the design and development of an implementation and usage plan as well as a measurement and validation schema. We often refer to them as “living stories” that change and evolve in response to the dynamics of the business, the marketplace patterns of behavior.

User task-oriented > Customer lifecycle-oriented
Personas and scenarios are often used to illustrate or test a set of tasks that a user will attempt to accomplish using a system or product. They illustrate a user’s key interactions over time, showing how the relationship between a customer and a brand evolve over time via different and evolving interactive experiences and an ongoing brand dialogue. They illustrate the stories of a single individual (or family) and the life stages and evolution that they will experience.

Software development tool > Strategy development tool
Personas and scenarios are commonly used as a software development tool to describe the user-system interactive application design. They serve this purpose sufficiently, but also encompass a framework to tell strategic product, audience, market, and business strategy stories, telling the stories of individuals and how their lives will change over a few years. In parallel, they tell the stories of how the company, its products, services and philosophy might also evolve over those same few years. For instance, our strategic personas often paint a picture of how a brand will shift in public perception and/or marketing position over time.

Tactical > Strategic
Personas can exist at feature levels, product levels, division levels, company levels, market levels, and cultural levels. They can tell stories of new business models, new paradigms of service and of cultural shifts. They can be used to depict a “day-in-the-life” of this year, next year, and five years from now. They can tell multiple stories that span a customer’s lifetime relationship with a company. They bring to life product opportunities that are realized in the cracks of market shifts and emerging cultural changes.

Use case tool > Business case tool
Traditional use cases, most used within software development, are detailed stories of user-system interactions and responses. We can apply these same principles to defining and communicating business cases. Scenarios tell stories of what happens when a specific button is pushed or when a valuable customer calls Customer Service. They tell stories of how an interface is used to find a local store and they tell stories about what happens when that customer walks into a retail store.

Single channel > Multi-channel
Most often, personas are applied to software or website interactions. Fewer, but still many, tell stories of interactions with kiosks, portals, mobile apps, IVRs and customer support personnel. We often tell stories that incorporate brand experiences with many channels, each with the intent to move the customer closer to a transaction. The principles and techniques that are used to tell the stories of multiple interactive channels can be equally effective when applied to retail environment design and direct marketing strategies.

Individual > Interconnected and community-based
Personas are still most often about a single individual. From customer observation, we recognize that purchase decisions often involve more than one individual, including a spouse, a friend, a family member, or a “significant influencer,” as we like to say (like a grandmother, clergy, or a coach). These relationships are critical to how customers perceive, react, and experience a brand. Beyond co-decision-makers and influencers are the issues of a customer community. The use and the role of consumer-generated content and brand evangelists (extreme advocates) must be clearly defined and meticulously planned. Online forums, blogs, owner’s clubs, and streaming interviews are just a few of the data sources that emerge on the web and via traditional publishing every few seconds. You should become aware of these sources, understand their impact and anticipate how customers will use them to inform their behaviors. Make those interactions part of your personas and scenarios.

New product concept > New categories of products
As a new product concept is brought to life, the development team often realizes that potential variations or expansions to the idea exist that can be applied to other products or industries. For example, as we designed a service look-up tool for the web, we realized that this was a platform and interactive tool that could be applied to many related place-based services. Scenarios tell stories of variations on or a deviation of an existing business model, or something entirely new. They tell stories of uncertainties that are grounded in the behavior and emotions of individuals, shifts in markets, and changing cultural values. Most business landscapes are mature, so you should push on them a bit with stories of unique, but obvious, variations that stem from user understanding. We often find it useful to include characteristics or behaviors in a persona that are disruptive or anomalies to the norm.

Anecdotal success > Success through measured business impact
Throughout the years, we have not seen much focus on the definition of how a feature or product is going to be proven successful. In most cases, we have prioritized a segment, and we know its value. All businesses have success measures which might include customer acquisition, revenue generation, share of wallet, brand perception, transaction through a channel, reduced operating costs, customer satisfaction, or something else. Sure, the personal stories of individuals resonate, but the stories of actual, predicted and measurable ROI are what let business executives sleep soundly at night. You should clearly define the measurable business attributes and goals that exist within the story of each persona. Design a continuous measurement, iteration, and validation strategy that is both tactical and strategic.

Associated with a product > Associated with multiple divisions of a company
Often, our persona actors are introduced to a company and they become part of the internal fabric of product and service planning. Customers don’t care if they’re interacting with a specific division of a company; what they do care about is the ease of interaction and quality of service and overall experience. Tell fact-based stories of how customers should effortlessly cross department and divisional boundaries. You’ll know you’ve done this well when someone recognizes and identifies by name a persona actor that you created for another division within the company two years ago.

Customer-focused > Customer service-focused
Personas are usually about a current or potential customer. We have found them to be a useful tool to model the dialogue and interactions of a customer and various Customer Service Representatives (CSRs). “A caller has requested to speak to an operator through the IVR via this path. This is their issue and, in most cases, the answer can found in one of these sections of the site.” What tools does the CSR use to resolve the customer’s issue? How should a CSR gently encourage and lead a caller to solely use the web next time? We typically spend one to two days at a Customer Service Center extracting a wealth of customer knowledge that exists, as well as directly listening to the dialogue of customer calls. Customer Service Centers are often the arms that embrace many current and future customers and carry them through the purchase, service, or ownership experience. The one-to-one customer relationships that are formed by a concierge or personal assistant are often the most impactful point of influencing customer perception and behavior. These individuals and their numerous daily interactions are the hub of customer empathy and understanding within a company. They deserve the same consideration and level of planning and strategy as any other marketing or sales channel.

Application-focused > Message, channel, frequency and media-focused
Arc Worldwide is part of a larger holding company and network of advertising agencies, channel marketers, and media planners. Agency Planners have traditionally provided the data and strategy that informs message development. Agency Creatives have crafted the messages and visual work used to present those messages to the public. Media Planners and Buyers create the strategies of when and where those messages should be delivered. Our personas and scenarios often complement, guide, and bring to life the work that these different groups do. The allocation of marketing and advertising budgets is quickly shifting from a past of majority allocation to mass media, to a future of majority allocation to one-to-one, multi-channel interactions. Personas can be used to show the predictive effects of more intelligent messaging, media, and channel experiences.

Static, one-time artifact > Living, dynamically shifting stories
Traditionally, personas have been created for one-time use, to inform the application design of a single product. They are created once and then used a few reports and presentations. On occasion, an internal set of personas is updated as financial quarters or even years pass, but this is the exception. We encounter many companies that have already “gone down the persona development path,” sometimes more than once, and didn’t realize any value from that activity. Our experience has been that personas are most useful and valuable when an organization declares that satisfying their needs and tasks is an operational imperative.

Imagine a future framework in which customer personas and scenarios are dynamically generated from live data. These stories can be accessed via an online portal by various internal and external marketing, sales, and product development teams. This online tool is a sophisticated information repository with an underlying construct of three layers-a data layer, a rules layer, and a presentation layer. Many companies have access to rich volumes of data from sales, marketing, and customer data sources. The data layer comprises feeds from various sources including survey data, transaction data, loyalty data, value measurements and more. The rules layer organizes the data itself and the data in relation to other data sources. The data comes to life in the presentation layer as it is converted into visual stories in the form of frameworks, diagrams, matrices, multi-dimensional personas, and experience models. These are rich and relevant stories about your target audience and the issues of their lives that may affect your business. Because of the dynamic nature of the data, these personas are living stories that change daily.

We aggregate this real-time data within this portal and bring it to life as visualizations of customers, channel usage, advertising and marketing effectiveness, and sales. From these snapshots come real-time planning insights and opportunities. The purpose of this portal is to provide an at-a-glance status of the profile of your audience and the various channels with which they interact with your brand. This portal uses various techniques of information visualization to demonstrate the effectiveness of these channels in accomplishing specific business and marketing goals. Aggregate views of current public opinion and press coverage add an additional dimension to the story. Also built into this tool is an application for scheduling and executing research studies with various representative customer groups. Tools and information are uniquely combined and delivered to you via a custom dashboard.

What better way to drive business strategies, including messaging, product and services offered, innovation explorations, media design, interactive dialogues, store design and much more? Our belief is that through the proper use of advanced technologies, every large brand could have a dynamic customer, market, and cultural reporting platform at the heart of its business decision-making engine.

Personas and scenarios applied
Over the past two years, the Arc Worldwide Experience Planning group has written dozens of personas and scenarios that span numerous verticals and diverse business models, goals, and strategies. Together with talented visual and information designers, we create compositions that juxtapose user, business, organization, marketplace, and product details in a way that clearly communicates connections, actionable insights, and opportunities.

Some of the industries and related business problems to which these methods have been applied include:

  • Defining long-term ebusiness strategy based on how the company-patient relationship will evolve with each disease state (in the context of budget approval for multiple large-scale projects over a three-year period).
  • Validating and bringing market data-driven segments to life (to demonstrate future reliance on and interaction with the financial service company’s emerging global intranet).
  • Architect multi-channel user experiences and define effective customer purchase processes for a range of high revenue-generating products (to optimize category specific, multi-channel shopping processes).
  • Planning and launching a new home entertainment product category, product, service, and brand; (telling stories of the customer relationship continuum from initial consideration, through service purchase, the out-of-box experience, installation, usage and customer service).
  • Understanding how regional travelers plan trips and what channels and mediums they use to plan. (also clearly defined were the goals, considerations, and the types of information that are critical to their success and peace of mind).
  • Increase brand awareness and penetration of a consumer package good in specific European markets (provide a framework to generate new ideas to increase product loyalty).
  • Understand the interconnections and relationships between a union and its members.
  • Tell stories of regional and local difference and opportunities around military recruiting (tied to emotions, values, behaviors, and the effectiveness of various messaging and media).

Whatever the industry, we craft user personas and scenarios to communicate clear, digestible plans and strategies that are embraced as useful and engaging throughout organizations. As mentioned, in many cases we introduce organizations to their customers for the first time. And in other cases, the introductions are broader, including a strategy for shifting market position or measuring business success.

Conclusion and recommendations
Amazon, Home Depot, Delta Airlines, Sears, Discover, Morgan Stanley, Microsoft, Toyota and many others have integrated customer personas and scenarios into their strategic planning process. They provide flexibility, adaptability and a real-world usefulness that many business strategy and forecasting techniques do not. Whether your client’s target audience is students, sales associates, doctors, online shoppers, future soldiers, insurance agents, financial advisors, or business partners, we recommend that you use personas and scenarios to capture their essence, apply it to business issues, and tell stories of future business success.

Arc Worldwide Experience Planners ensure that Arc’s products and services are informed and inspired by the attitudes and behaviors of customers while appropriate and innovative in supporting business objectives. With a holistic and relentless focus on creating engaging customer experiences that meet business needs, Experience Planners are highly skilled in activities frequently associated with behavioral market research, business process analysis, usability engineering, information architecture, and interaction design. Employing an iterative, user-centered development approach, Experience Planners create the blueprint for products and services that are at least relevant and efficient, at most delightful, loyalty-inciting, and life-altering. They invent and improve experiences across interactive media and real-world spaces: from in-store kiosks to websites; from personalization infrastructures to interactive games and mobile UIs. Experience Planning is part of Arc’s larger global Insights & Analytics group.

Parrish Hanna is VP, Director of Experience Planning at Arc Worldwide. Previously, Parrish served as President of HannaHodge, a groundbreaking user experience firm that he co-founded in 1998. For over a decade, he has spent the better part of each week planning better experiences for humans and refining the process to do so. He considers himself fortunate to have worked with brilliant people toward making the products of enlightened companies like Cadillac, Ford, Vanguard, Disney, Samsung, IBM, Sears, Intel, and Xerox easy and pleasurable to use. Parrish has a B.A. in Industrial Design, an M.A. in Human-Computer Interaction, and a handful of patents and industry awards. He’s a regular publisher and speaker on issues related to experience design.

Posted in Methods, Process and Methods, Special topic: Personas | 3 Comments »

3 Comments

  • Alok Jain

    December 9, 2005 at 5:07 am

    Customer loyalty and advocacy is at the center of business success. Reports from Forrester have constantly found that. Some interesting viewing:
    http://www.forrester.com/vvlogin?referer=http://www.forrester.com/findresearch/results?geo=0&dAg=365&N=50170+691

    Also, one on my blog:
    http://webxm.blogspot.com/2005_03_01_webxm_archive.html

    Cheers
    Alok Jain

  • Greymon

    July 21, 2005 at 6:20 pm

    I have grown all too accustomed to reading fluffy “the sound and the fury” design articles.

    This, however, is anything but fluff. Highly focused, well written, insightful, and both practical and theoretical–this was a great article and a great example of the level of discussion the practitioners in our industry should to maintain.

    It’s fascinating to read how other designers conceive of and apply personas and scenarios in their process. Thank you for sharing.

  • christiane

    August 2, 2005 at 10:16 am

    Unfortunately, I disagree with Greymon. This article is useless fluff. Case in point:

    “The best product and application design strategies are created when a team first gains direct understanding of the people who will use the end product … An understanding of the customer is at the heart of every good business.”

    This is news? This article is User Experience 101 material; all theory and no how-to. The kinds of ideas presented here are why user experience gets a bad name. UE clients want deliverables, not a tale told around a campfire.

    “Over the past two years, the Arc Worldwide Experience Planning group has written dozens of personas and scenarios that span numerous verticals and diverse business models, goals, and strategies. Together with talented visual and information designers, we create compositions that juxtapose user, business, organization, marketplace, and product details in a way that clearly communicates connections, actionable insights, and opportunities.”

    I’m not interested in reading marketing copy, I’m interested sharing new approaches towards best practice. Hanna shares nothing new in our field, just more duckspeak to promote his own business.

    When did Boxes and Arrows become a resume portal?

Sorry, comments are closed.