This blog is the first part of a three-part series. Click to read Part 2 and Part 3.

In our first series on context first experience design strategy, we discussed how context first dwarfs mobile first’s ability to engage customers and provide a contextually relevant experience. As Rebecca Lieb, Principal at our partner research firm Altimeter Group, puts it, “context is the antidote to endless, noisy media proliferation.” From a marketer’s perspective, it is the difference between merely targeting your customers versus truly engaging them.

Leading your organization to take a Context First approach might seem like a daunting challenge, but focusing on the application of context drivers can serve as an effective guidepost to help you navigate forward. Further, the value proposition is too compelling to ignore.

A context first approach can help you deliver the Chief Digital Officer’s holy grail: the right experience, the right person, the right time, and the right place. Even limited application of context first can deliver an outsized impact; retailer Brooks Brothers saw web metrics such as cart abandonment improve by 40% simply by showing landing pages tailored to how (i.e. through which marketing channel) a visitor arrived at the website.

Personas: the first context driver

In this post, we explore our first driver: personas. Personas are composite characters that represent a group of customers with shared objectives and mindsets. Like traditional customer segments, personas try to organize a market into differentiated customer groups.

Unlike customer segments, which primarily categorize customers according to quantitative attributes such as demographics or purchase frequency, personas are a design tool that seeks to group individuals based on objectives: why a customer is doing what she is doing. They help us to focus on a customer’s needs, wants, and desires, both expressed and latent, in order to better understand what makes them tick. 

Customer segments can serve as a useful bridge to the use of personas, says Mike Roberts, Principal at Capgemini Consulting, but he emphasizes that personas are meant to transcend traditionally-conceived customer segments, not duplicate them. When done well, personas are a combination of quantitative data, such as past purchase behavior or observable product preferences, and qualitative insights gleaned from activities such as customer interviews or observational research. Travis Hodges, Managing Consultant at Capgemini Consulting, discusses three rules for persona creation:

  1. Focus on the common ground between customers with like objectives and needs, and seek patterns
  2. Recognize uniqueness only where it really matters
  3. Create short, pithy descriptions that summarize each persona

Roberts shares that most companies understand the value of personas as a general concept. But applying customer context is an integral part of persona development, and “one of our main challenges,” he continues, “is getting our clients to focus on context. They unconsciously tend to return to the demographic focus they are familiar with.” Companies which embrace a contextual focus typically develop richer and more useful personas as a result.  

Personas in Action

Personas are important to build empathy for the customer internally, focus the experience design process, and to make and defend decisions. Research has shown context-based personas to be highly impactful.  Frank Long, a researcher at Ireland’s National College of Arts & Design, found that teams using personas combined with contextual storyboards designed solutions which were nearly twice as effective at solving for user-critical tasks as teams using personas, but no storyboards, and nearly four times as effective as the control group which did not use personas at all.

A recent Capgemini Consulting engagement illustrates the value of well-executed personas. A high-performing Quick Serve Restaurant (QSR) chain historically marketed to customers and designed its customer experience primarily on the basis of customer segmentation – specifically, demographics, visit frequency, and geography. In support of a broader transformation program, Capgemini Consulting helped the QSR better understand its customers and the contexts in which they interact with the brand.

The program team kicked off the work by observing and then interacting with customers in several different contexts. They then drew upon this research to develop personas, select design personas (the prioritized subset of a firm’s family of personas chosen as design targets), and walk the design personas through future-state journey maps. The design personas and journey mapping exercise provided an elevated understanding of customer context, which in turn enabled the QSR to identify numerous high-ROI opportunities, spurring in-store and mobile platform investments.

While their investments are still too new to have generated meaningful data, industry research group IHL notes that executives at other hospitality firms which have made similar in-store investments have reported an average uptick in sales of 2.7%, and a particularly successful QSR expects a similar mobile platform initiative to yield several years of mid-single comparable sales growth.

Putting it All Together

Both the research and our experience tell us that developing personas with a focus on customer context can deliver significant value for your business. This means going beyond both customer segments and the development of more traditional personas. To unlock the full value of a context first experience design strategy, read on and learn how to complement your personas with the other two context drivers: customer objective and environment.