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Responsive Design: Why It Is Imperative for Financial Services

August 24th, 2015

There are a myriad of discussions and educational pieces out there on the topic of responsive web design. Yet, there is still a fair amount of confusion and debate among marketers around its benefits and business case. In financial services, however, the business case has become much clearer.

Last week, a study published by eMarketer revealed that nearly 59% of 18-to-34-year-old mobile phone users in the country will access their bank, credit union, credit card or brokerage account via their phones at least monthly this year. But, by the end of this year, eMarketer predicts, 74.2% of US adult millennial internet users will bank digitally via any device, So, developing first class digital experiences across all devices in financial services is no longer a luxury, it’s an imperative.

While the concept of responsive design—providing digital experiences that deliver the best capabilities and experience for any given screen size—is not new, how you elect to approach it can make all of the difference to the end result.

Sean_thumbnailSo we sat down with our leading expert on the subject, CTO Sean Brown, to get his perspective on the technique and why he says the time to act is now. This is the first in a two-part series on responsive design.

Q: What’s the main point you want people to know about responsive design?
Simply that marketers can’t afford to ignore mobile experiences anymore. Any marketer paying attention to web analytics today knows that desktop use is declining, while mobile use (both phone and tablet) is increasing.

What this means to a brand is that their mobile experience needs to be world class. They also need to deliver a world class desktop experience, and tablet experience, and whatever the next thing will be. Gone are the days where mobile could be treated as an afterthought—we are past that paradigm shift.

Q: What is responsive design, in a nutshell?
A: Responsive design is a set of techniques that allow you to build a digital experience with one set of code that will respond to the screen or display real estate available—so whether a user experiences your website from her phone—or she’s hooked up a laptop to a 65” television screen—the website will respond and display the best combination of content and functionality for that screen.

Q: So, it detects a device?
A: No—it’s not device detection. Instead the code responds to the size of the display that is available. It doesn’t care if it’s an iPhone 6 or a Samsung with Android running on it—or a Kindle fire or an iPad. It’s device-agnostic, but it will detect screen resolution and display in some variation based on pre-determined content breakpoints.

Q: What’s a breakpoint?
A: In general, a breakpoint is a mutually agreed upon screen width where we’ll change the experience of the content—and an opportunity to ask what the best use cases are for users. For example, a display at 1024 pixels wide (a very common tablet width) might be one breakpoint—and anything bigger than that is designed for desktop. Then, landscape vs. portrait might be another breakpoint (e.g. tablets might be horizontal, phones vertical). So how are users experiencing your site at these sizes? How is the navigation used? How is the content or functionality prioritized? How much content is displayed? We take a look at common real estate sizes, evaluate the data and analytics alongside our user discovery, and then we boil them into supersets.

Q: What about backend systems? How does it work in industries with widespread use of legacy systems, like financial services?
A: Responsive design is primarily concerned with the presentation layer (i.e what your user actually sees on your site), so it can be implemented and integrated with just about any “backend” system, like a content management system, commerce platform, and, yes, online banking. For instance, we recently helped a $30 billion financial services company completely transform their online banking experience from one that looked and worked like every other bank, to a world-class, intuitive experience on screens of all sizes.

When we work with clients on a responsive redesign, we take into account the gamut of experiences their customer might have –from tablet usage while watching TV to mobile phone usage while standing in line at the grocery—to help prioritize the content, presentation, functionality, and device capabilities to make the best possible user experience in each instance—all before we apply the visual design.

In part two, we’ll talk about why responsive is finally taking hold, which barriers have come down, which are still misunderstood, and when to build an app.



Five Key Principles to Designing the Best Doctor Finder

August 14th, 2015

Recently, we’ve been engaged with multiple projects for large healthcare systems. One aspect of these digital experience designs, and a challenge that has proven to be a tough nut to crack for health systems across the board, has been improving online physician finders.

A physician finder (or doctor finder, provider search tool, whatever you prefer to call it) is one of the most visited areas of health systems’ websites. In fact, it has a direct hand in driving patient volumes—from new patient acquisition to physician referrals—yet many marketers have been reticent to redesign. Why?

For such a “simple” tool, it’s a lot more complicated than it seems. There can be system-wide debates—from which doctors should be included, to how they are displayed, to how much information should be displayed and how it is searched for, that can gridlock projects for years.

While there is no panacea, and these challenges can be daunting, they can be overcome. Here are five key principles to designing the best doctor finder possible:

1. Don’t Force Geography: There is a distinction between a user’s needs for finding specialists vs. primary care doctors. For example, when someone is looking for a primary care doctor, they generally care whether the doctor is close and convenient to their home or work. When seeking a specialist, they are often not bound as tightly by geography and are willing to travel, sometimes even out of state, for the specialty/complex care they need. Not forcing the user to choose a geography/location in order to start their search, but allowing them to refine based on distance/location, has been one way to overcome this.

2. Use Natural Language: Mapping medical terminology to more natural language for users is critical. If someone has just been diagnosed with diabetes and is looking for a doctor to help them manage the disease, they might not know they need an “endocrinologist” so having an experience that only allows users to search/filter by medical specialty is too limiting. A robust taxonomy that recognizes natural language searches like “diabetes doctor” and sends users to the appropriate care providers is the answer, as well as a search engine that recognizes common misspellings (not everyone knows how to spell diabetes).

3. Embrace Feedback and Transparency: Patient ratings/Health Grades can be incredibly valuable and informative to users who are trying to decide which provider to work with. However, it can be a political issue within a healthcare organization; many providers fear negative reviews becoming public, and some providers are also competitive with others and fear that subjective patient grades may unfairly influence prospective patients. However, we believe the market is changing and consumers are taking charge of their healthcare choices to a much greater extent than in years past. A healthcare consumer wants to make informed decisions, and they’re beginning to demand this information. We encourage our healthcare clients to get ahead of the curve and provide this data to prospective patients.

4. Robust Doctor Profiles Are Key: At a very basic level, provider profiles that are more complete (full bio, awards and publications, educational background, and especially a photo) get more clicks, and subsequently more visibility during a consumer’s selection process. Many physicians don’t see the value, but we’ve been able to demonstrate via testing that there is value in the providers contributing to an up-to-date, robust doctor profile on the healthcare system’s website. While we are still in the process of gathering data to directly establish a measurable relationship between robust profiles and appointments made, we believe the cause and effect is there. We are working with our clients to prove the case and further encourage a higher level of profile completion. Stay tuned.

5. Show Your Full Team: A conundrum our clients have encountered is the visibility/validity of having providers such as anesthesiologists, hospitalists, pathologists, trauma and emergency medicine doctors visible in a doctor finder. Consumers don’t ever get to choose those providers, so should they show up in the finder? Our argument has been yes. As we move towards a more accountable care model, healthcare systems should demonstrate that they have a network of care to support all of their patients’ needs. Establishing relationships in your physician finder’s data model as far as which surgeons work with which anesthesiologists, or whom you might expect to encounter at a given clinic or hospital, demonstrates a well-rounded “care team” approach that is the future of healthcare.


Extractable Has Four Sessions Nominated for SXSW Interactive 2016 – Please vote.

August 12th, 2015

SXSW | Extractable | Vote-PanelPIcker-Idea-2016-Twitter

Extractable’s thought leaders have four sessions nominated to speak at SXSW Interactive 2016 Conference through SXSW’s PanelPicker.
Michael Betts, Dana Larson, Simon Mathews, and Jill Vanoncini of Extractable, in addition to speakers from PracticeFusion, Jack Morton, and CaptureProof, are queued for the SXSW dais. Their ideas just need your votes.

As part of the SXSW’s conference development process, nominated topics are put to a popular vote in the SXSW PanelPicker — to elevate the best topics to the next round and the SXSW judges’ consideration set.

If you’d like to hear these topics and want to help us take the dais, please take a moment to sign in (or register) at SXSW–it takes under a minute. And, then click on the links below and click the thumbs up on the left to vote for each of them. Voting ends September 4.

Into The Ether: The Future of Healthcare Data:

The Uberization of Financial Services:

ABCs of Content Marketing:

Take a Picture, It’ll Heal Faster: The Future of Health:

If you have any questions, or would like to see these topics come to life in a conference or with your team, let us know.


8 Quick Steps to Analyzing Visitor Preferences by Time and Day

June 16th, 2015

Knowing when users are visiting a website can help companies better understand their audiences and make smarter marketing and business decisions. Knowing when users interact with your website allows you to gain a better understanding of how your users consume content and the priority of their tasks. By default, Google Analytics provides the day, hour, and minute of every session. However, the times are shown according to the time zone specified in the Google Analytics profile.

Meaning, if the GA Profile is set to PST, then the Hour of visit for all users will be converted to PST. So a user visiting at 1pm EST from New York will appear as a 10am PST visitor in the Google Analytics profile.

 For companies with a nationwide or global presence, this representation of the time data isn’t very useful in understanding what time, from the user’s perspective, someone is visiting the website.

Fortunately, it is possible to obtain the local times of users’ sessions using either Excel or Google Analytics custom dimensions. But first, we’ll discuss why having this information is so valuable.

Why Should We Collect the Local Time of Users’ Sessions?

It is crucial to understand user behavior in order to optimize the website for its users and to achieve its business goals. Combining this data with other metrics in your analysis can help you identify trends among users who visit at a particular time of day.

Local User Time data can help answer questions such as:

  • Is the website reaching its target users?

Consider a Bank who offers services to other financial institutions. They have a lead generation website aimed towards working professionals, so they might expect their best leads arrive during regular business hours, since prospects would be reaching out on behalf of their companies. Heavy usage outside of these hours could indicate that the majority of their website users are not in their target group of users.

  • Are the most valuable customers visiting at a certain time of day?

The same Bank might identify that their best leads are visiting their website in the morning. They can use this knowledge to differentiate between future high vs. low value leads, and prioritize the early-morning visitors who are likely to be the most valuable. Knowing what time of day these users are visiting also indicates what might be a good time to follow-up with these new leads.

  • What are some ideas for new content?

Insight into a user’s daily routine is beneficial in crafting content towards those users. Combining local hour data with pageviews and time on page metrics can help you identify if users are viewing particular pieces of content at different times of their day. If a Hospital with a Blog used to promote healthy living sees a lot of late night visitors, they could consider writing articles like, “10 Tips to Get a Good Night Sleep.”

  • Can we use time of day data to differentiate and identify new demographics?

Users who view articles like “10 Tips to Get a Good Night Sleep” late at night could be insomniacs or new parents. By segmenting your analytics by users who exhibit this behavior, you can see if groups like “new parents” are valuable users (more engaged, buy more products, etc.). You can then target your content and services towards these valuable demographics.

  • How can we craft content to best serve our users?

If a Bank sees many users logging into their mobile banking app after their customer service center is closed for the night, they’ll want to make sure the self-service help content addresses the most common questions that would typically be addressed by the customer service center.

  • Should we extend business hours?

If a Hospital with branches nationwide sees a large portion of their users visiting their Urgent Care Locations page before/after their regular business hours, they could consider extending those hours to meet more of the demand.

Google Analytics Custom Dimensions Method

By creating custom dimensions for the user’s local time in Google Analytics, it becomes much easier to answer these questions. In this method, the general idea is to collect the local date and time from the user’s browser, which we’ll send to Google Analytics in the form of custom dimensions within an Event. We’ll keep track of whether or not we’ve sent this information using a first-party cookie so that we only send one Event with the Local Hour & Day custom dimensions per session.

To illustrate the results, we configured the local user time custom dimensions on the Extractable website. Now we can see the local time of our users who are visiting the Extractable Blog.


Here we can see that 9am is the most popular time for users to visit our blog. We’ll also note that users who visited during their 3pm hour remained on the Blog pages for almost twice as long as those who visited at 9am. This gives us some insight into our users behaviors during a given work day.

Steps to Setup Local Hour and Day Collection using Google Analytics

Below are the steps we took to configure Local Hour and Day custom dimensions on the Extractable website using Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager.

1)      Create “Local Hour” and “Local Day” custom dimensions in the Google Analytics profile. Make a note the Index numbers (ours are 11 and 12).


2)      In Google Tag Manager, create 2 Custom JavaScript Macros: “localHour” and “localDayOfWeek”

localhour    localday

3)      Create a First-Party Cookie Macro “active_session”


4)      Create a Custom HTML Tag “If Active Session get Local Day and Hour” that fires on the Rule that the DOM has loaded. For this Custom Tag, we also set the “Tag Firing Priority” to 1 to make it more likely for the tag to fire.


5)      Create a Rule “Event GetLocalDayHour” to listen for the GetLocalDayHour Event.


6)      Create an Event Tag, “Event – User Local Day and Hour” that fires on the “Event GetLocalDayHour” Rule created earlier. In the Custom Dimensions section, be sure to use the Index numbers that correspond with the custom dimensions you set up in your GA Profile and the names of the Hour and Day Macros you created earlier.

event-user-local-day-hour gtm-custom-dim

7)      Test your configuration. Since the custom dimensions are sent with Events, you can use real-time tracking to verify that the information is being sent to Google Analytics. Here we can see that the “User Local Day and Hour” Event (which we set up in step 6) is firing as expected.


8)      Once the Event is functioning correctly, you can publish the Google Tag Manger Container. With this information we can create a custom report with this specialized information about our users.


By using Google Analytics to collect the Local Hour and Day data of your users, you’ll have another layer of insight into your users and their behavior that you can use to inform your business decisions and marketing efforts.


The Uberization of Banking

June 5th, 2015

The financial services industry must rise to the challenge of disruptive technology and the expectations of enhanced digital experience models to remain competitive as the primary consumer interface for banking services.

This article was first published in The Financial Brand.

Technology innovation is always spawning new words, but it is rare that the name of a company becomes a verb. Google is clearly the most prominent example of this phenomena, but now it seems, at least in the business world, that Uber may be becoming a verb meaning to ‘radically disrupt’ an entire industry.

While Google grew out of the first ‘dot-com-boom,’ Uber is one of the largest companies to have grown out of the second tech boom. This time round, the boom is being built around two main themes, ‘apps’ and the ‘sharing economy’.

An interesting infographic has been making the rounds on social media, highlighting the success of new ‘sharing economy’ disrupters. The references, first discussed by Tom Goodwin on TechCrunch, illustrate how the middle men get cut out and how companies that take over the customer interface are the ones to gain.

“The new breed of disruptive companies are the fastest growing in history. Uber, InstacartAlibabaAirbnbSeamless, Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, Google are indescribably thin layers that sit on top of vast supply systems ( where the costs are) and interface with a huge number of people ( where the money is),” states Goodwin.


While this is a fun infographic to share with our more luddite friends, there are fundamental questions we need to ask to understand how these companies have been this successful. We might also ask what this means for innovating in the financial services industry.

To answer that question, we must first understand the attributes of both the industries they serve and their solutions, so we can see what is applicable outside of these spaces.

Article continued on The Financial Brand»


Six things I have learnt (so far) at NetFinance 2015

April 28th, 2015

Simon Mathews speaking at NetFinanceFor the last couple of days I have been at the NetFinance 2015 conference in Miami. I was privileged to be able to speak on the first morning (the pic above!) on the challenges and opportunities of delivering digital customer experiences in financial services, but wanted to focus this post more on the things I’ve been hearing from the speakers and in conversations with digital and experience leaders at major banks and financial institutions, including USAA, BBVA, Citi, US Bank, Schwab and many others.

#1: The digital experience is front and center.

I started my presentation with a premise that delivering great digital customer experiences is central for Financial Institutions to thrive, and highlighted that recently banks had been on a buying spree, snapping up digital design firms (Capital one acquired Adaptive Path and BBVA, SpringStudio).

Across all the presentations and discussions these themes came out very strongly. In previous years a lot of the conversation was specifically on certain growth areas, such as mobile, technology integration or customer acquisition strategies. This year, it was really focused on, ‘how do we change how we do things to deliver a great customer experience on all devices and channels?’ And, repeatedly, speakers were seeing customer experience as a key differentiator for their brand.

Building on this trend, in an interesting case study, Rick Paster from Citi shared how working in a co-creation model with customers had led to a better prioritizing of features and hence design for Citi’s card customer experience.

#2 Customer expectations exceed the industry.

Another strong theme that emerged across multiple speakers was that customer expectations were already way-ahead of financial institutions’ ability to deliver digital experiences. Customers expect to be able to do most things online. They expect their FI to already know about them. They expect their experiences to be consistent on mobile, desktop, or in-person.  And for the call center to understand all the above.

Alejandro Carriles from BBVA argued that we should be not comparing to competitors, but against where customers spend their time online. So, more Facebook and less CompetitorBank. His question “When was the last time you saw that was ‘down for maintenance’”?

#3 Omni-channel barriers are self imposed.

In moving to a seamless experience across devices and channels, speakers highlighted many issues that add friction for users. Why, for example, once you are a bank customer do you need to “enroll” for online banking, or to use the mobile app, when the bank already knows what it needs to know?

Gareth Gaston from US bank shared a number of fascinating omni / cross channel experience customer flows and challenged the audience using an airline example – once you have bought your ticket (online) you don’t need to enroll to use the kiosk at the airport.

#4 Compliance is the boogeyman?

The financial industry is highly regulated and internal compliance controls on marketing and product delivery are critical. In the panel discussions it did not take long for internal compliance issues to be raised as a challenging in delivering digital experience innovation.  And, once that issue was raised, many more examples were then shared.  But, a few speakers suggested approaches that had worked for them in addressing this issue. Most of these focused on involving compliance teams in the creation process very early, bringing out their creativity in how to gain compliance, rather than the compliance team being just a final hurdle to jump in the innovation process. And, most speakers seemed to agree that once competitors had done something first, compliance tended to ease!

#5 Branches, maybe less important?

Accenture shared some of the findings from their 2015 North America Consumer banking survey. The full report is available here. One take away for me was that if a consumer’s local branch closed, 81% of those surveyed would not change banks. In 2013 that number was 48%.

In survey after survey, despite the fact that most customers rarely step into a branch, having branches is a key decision factor for customers. Hopefully this is the beginning of change in the importance of branches.

#6 Counterpoint, emotions are important in banking!

Jaime Punishill from TIAA-CREF in his presentation offered an interesting counterpoint to many of the discussions during the day – that the emotional element of most financial experience is low or non-existent. His argument was that we, as people, make decisions emotionally as well as rationally, and we should, as much as focusing on tasks and flows, focus on how the experience makes a user feel?

This is compelling. We are all human, and show great complexity in how we experience the world, and as designers we need to reflect this in our experience.

However, I’m not sure I want my bank balance to make me cry!


Are internal controls stifling customer experience innovation?

April 21st, 2015

Today was a great day. We just launched a completely re-imagined digital experience for our client, a large regional US bank. The first phase was the public, customer acquisition-focused site and was delivered in a completely fluid, fully responsive design that works great on the smallest smartphone to the largest desktop.

So, a great day!

However, soon after launch, the emails and phone calls started flowing in, related to some problems in-branch staff and other employees were seeing. After digging into the web analytics we worked out what was happening. Some staff, including those in-branch had ‘lost’ the main menu and hence could not log in to the online banking and other authenticated tools.

Going deeper, the issue was simple, and slightly unexpected. The horizontal screen resolution on the desktop PCs they were using was just 1024 pixels—a more typical resolution for tablets (and even quite small for the modern crop of tablets)—and hence in the responsive design framework, they were being served up the mobile style ‘hamburger’ menu rather than the full menu.

If you were to go to a Best-Buy today it is impossible to buy a PC, laptop or monitor with that low a resolution and has been for years.  So, our client’s customer-facing employees are using computers that are either very old, or deliberately configured to older specifications.

We had a hunch that this was different than the technology their customers are using, but just how different? As it turns out, quite different.

Diving back into the analytics data, we looked at another dimension of the user’s technology, the web browser being used and its version number.  Mapping version numbers to the date that browser version launched (thanks Wikipedia!) we built the chart that follows.

It shows the percentage of external customers (in blue) & internal employees (in orange) based on which browser version they were using when they visited the site, grouped into the year of the launch of that version. The data includes all the major browsers (IE, Chrome, Firefox Safari, etc.).

Browser age

What we can see immediately is that internal employees are using much older browsers. While 43% of customers have a browser version launched since January 2014, only 5% of bank employees do.

The average browser age for customers is 1.9 years, while for bank employees its 4.57 years. To give that age some context, 4.57 years from today takes us back to Oct 26th, 2010, when the iPhone 4 was brand new, Katy Perry was #1 on the Billboard chart with ‘Teenage dreams’ and making headlines by marrying Russell Brand.

So, while I may joke with the thought that these browsers have lasted four times longer than Katy Perry’s marriage to Russell Brand, there is a deeper underlying problem that needs to be discussed.

While enterprises must manage their technology to support older applications and security, employees are experiencing their customer-facing applications and tools in a very different way than their customers.

In a service-orientated business, which is more-and-more being delivered mostly, or totally, online, employees are the facilitators and enablers of the customer experience combined seamlessly with the technology. If they are not able to put themselves in the shoes of their customer, to empathize with them, they are at a disadvantage in aiding and driving them to better outcomes.

Taking this argument further, how can all employees assist in driving innovation and new digital ideas if they are already disadvantaged in the experience they are using? We used to talk about the digital-divide in reference to social opportunity. I’m beginning to wonder if the digital-divide may be alive and well inside of organizations, helping limit the opportunity for organizations to innovate.

Now, back to my Katy Perry playlist on Spotify…


Overcoming survivorship bias in data-driven experience design

April 16th, 2015

Survivorship bias in actionIn designing great digital experiences for our clients we bring into play multiple research inputs. Two of which, site analytics and comparative review, can have a potentially damaging Achilles Heel – survivorship bias.

What is survivorship bias?

A type of selection bias, the basic premise of survivorship bias is that we tend to distort data sets by focusing on successful examples and ignoring failures, as they did not survive to be measured.

An often cited example was the work done during World War II on improving bomber losses due to enemy fire.  When bombers were returning from missions with heavy damage, say in their tail section, engineers were looking at this and suggesting that the tail needed to be reinforced. However, this analysis did not include the planes that had been shot down, which means that it could have been a potential weakness in say, the wings, that was causing the losses, and the tails were already strong enough. The engineers could only see the surviving aircraft and this biased their thinking.

We see survivorship bias often raising its ugly head in studies of human success. We all regularly see click-bait headlines and new inspirational books along the lines of “The 50 Habits of the Most Successful CEOs” or similar propositions. As we read, the study reveals that, apparently these 50 CEOs all eat oatmeal for breakfast. But, by looking at just the successful CEOs, we don’t see the full data set, including unsuccessful CEOs and everyone else on the planet that may happen to eat oatmeal for breakfast. This is a classic example of survivorship bias.

So, how does this play out in digital experience design?

The first challenge is data. We use data to look at the success of current experiences, such as the value of content on a certain page, or whether one call to action works better than another, etc.  Yet, what we are seeing today on a site or experience is the surviving content, design and interactions. Content could have been deleted during development, pages evolved over time, interactions tweaked. So, while we can see how that specific experience is doing at that time, we can’t see what might have been, because essentially we have just one survivor to review.

Survivorship bias also kicks in when looking at competitor and comparator digital experiences to benchmark against. Let’s say we are working with an airline, and we look at its direct competitors, we are not, by default, looking at competitors that may have failed in the past, gone bankrupt, merged, etc.  While it may be argued that we don’t want to copy failure, we can still learn a lot by understanding the widest range of customer experiences as possible.

A good example of this is from a past client in the direct-to-consumer software space. They were very analytics and data-driven, optimizing their main site continuously. When they saw that a comparison table was increasing conversion on a product category page, they started applying the table concept on many more pages. Unfortunately, these changes started to negatively impact overall site conversion. Just as with the CEOs and oatmeal example, they had focused on one success instead of looking at the full picture.

What can we do to avoid survivorship bias?

Survivorship bias is a natural human tendency and in digital experience design we are often dealing with incomplete data sets and research inputs.  So, the first step is to understand how we are prone to this type of bias and specifically challenge it using techniques such as:

  • Multiple data inputs: Find as many different inputs as possible for the design process. For example, contrast analytics data with primary user research.
  • Imaginary scenarios: Use alternate mental models to ask ‘what if’? As with our CEOs and oatmeal example, ask what if the CEOs had eaten eggs for breakfast? What would this have done to our conclusions, and hence, is the conclusion valid?
  • Understand context: For specific design elements try and pull in data and research inputs that help you understand the context. In our example of the comparison table on the product category page, context would say why this is a great idea – on that page, users are making a decision as to which one of multiple products to pick, so a comparison table works well. But, what is the context the user has in mind on a different page, and hence is the table useful there?
  • Increase data with testing. Where possible, eliminate the bias by running multi-variant testing on the experience. Don’t just test A/B scenarios, but test multiple versions completely to ensure the failures survive in the data set.

Now, I’m off to eat my oatmeal.

Image credit - IWM

11 Steps Toward Actionable Personas

April 1st, 2015

I’ve got a dirty little secret – I don’t really like personas. This may be reasonable suspicion for dismissal from the User Experience club, but before you judge me too harshly, allow me to explain my position.

Point 1 — Personas eat up valuable time & attention

If you follow any classic program of HCI or UX training, personas were likely a significant part of your training. To fulfill the user-centered design process, the training says, you must first understand your user—who they are, what goals they have, and how you can motivate them. What better way to achieve that than to add a set of Personas to your project plan? By writing about our target audience, we will magically become empathic designers. We can embrace the audience segments, internalize their needs, design around their roadblocks, and generally do a better job of engaging them.

But here’s the reality—the Discovery phase for an agency engagement is one of the most time-intensive and attention-scattered portions of any large-scale, real-world project. There are piles of existing research, numerous stakeholder groups to interview, reams of analytics, survey data, marketing collateral and the like to pore through. As the metaphor goes, it’s like trying to sip water out of a fire hose. These documents and activities are invaluable but they’re dense – and finding the insights scattered among them takes serious time and energy. It’s also one of the first places that clients and project managers want to scale back when deadlines are tight.

What happens in these cases is often the creation of the persona-lite—a rapidly built document that lets the UX team feel like they haven’t sold their soul, and project management team feel that they’ve “checked the box.” These thin versions are not informed by direct customer research, and are therefore built on the usually false assumptions of the UX designer tasked with its creation.

Which leads to my next point.

Point 2 – The majority of personas are misinformed at best and misleading at worst.

One common cause of poor personas is their alignment to demographic data, which tends to instigate all of our worst stereotyping behavior. I call this the “Nuclear Family Fallacy” where we tend toward following established stereotypes. If the data says the largest demographic group is married and that group most frequently has two kids and most often our buyer is a woman, and that woman usually does not have full employment, then our personas are likely to reflect all of this. But it doesn’t reflect the reality. When we base our assumptions on stereotypes or data averages, we lose track of the uniqueness of real, human individuals.

Let me give you an example of how this plays out…

In a recent persona review, one astute client commented that our photos bore zero resemblance to the client marketing event he had attended the prior week. And it was true. The stock photos we used were filled with attractive, clean-cut, well-groomed individuals in awkwardly “professional” poses. While my personas were based on real customer interviews, those interviews were done over the phone, and I was making gross assumptions about how these professionals looked on the other end of the line. Plus, by turning to available stock photography that fit the visual style of the deliverable I was creating, I was unwittingly skewing the accuracy of my personas. Mea culpa.

It’s a simple example to prove a point, but it applies to every aspect of our personas. When we don’t know, we tend to make assumptions and those assumptions are just as frequently wrong.

Point 3 – Personas are frequently un-actionable.

Once you’ve created your personas, what do you do with them? It’s common practice for personas to be created, presented, and then tossed into the PowerPoint graveyard. Stakeholders can nod in affirmation—yes, you’ve captured the essence of our users—but it’s another thing entirely to build actionable personas adding value to the design process. They can be mildly interesting but still lack the depth and nuance that differentiate user groups.

It’s this differentiation that we are really seeking. For personas to become actionable tools in experience design, we need them to tell us how user group A is different from user group B, so that we can understand exactly what information, what tools, and what features we need to be creating, plus the behaviors our design needs to encourage or discourage.

At this point, you’re probably in one of two camps — either grumbling in reluctant agreement, or getting ready to skewer me for missing the point. But I’d like to make a counter-argument, and show how a recent project has changed my mind about the value of these elusive deliverables.


Extractable was recently engaged by a large B2B client whose corporate clients stretch across Marketing, Legal, Accounting and other teams. The company had grown through acquisition and now managed a set of loosely connected websites. Compounding this was an intricate set of back-office business processes, long sales cycles, and well-entrenched incumbent vendors.

Our team quickly realized that a major stumbling block to design would be our own ability to comprehend the enormous complexity of the vendor-customer relationship, and that personas could serve as a bridge across the knowledge gap.  To unravel this complexity, we followed several strategies in creating our personas.

Preliminary Work

1. Build a framework. To drive home audience differentiation we created an “audience grid” that separated leadership decision-makers from end users, and separated buyers from the advisors they consulted. Each persona sat squarely in one portion of the grid.


2. Base personas on real primary research. Since our domain knowledge was small, speaking with real customers was essential to understanding the industry. Even if you can only get 4-5 customers to speak with, make every effort to do so. You can also supplement with transcripts from past interviews.

3. Determine the appropriate persona “type.” Are they behavioral? Psychographic? Demographic? For our client, we quickly perceived that the user’s role in the corporate structure is most indicative of their goals, motivations, and behaviors. By aligning to this structure, we create a common language among the team.

4. Don’t work in a bubble. A good approach is to tag-team the interviews and allow follow up time to discuss what you heard. Each interview should be discussed, dissected, and debated. It’s amazing how much more detail you’ll catch. Share the personas and gather as much input as you can, especially from subject matter experts.

Creating the Personas

5. Build in uniqueness and consider the corner cases. Personas should capture the essence of your audience by being as unique as they are. It will bring a degree of reality that makes the personas relatable and sparks rich discussion. Think of them as colorful composites of your interviews. Your SMEs can help validate which customer inputs represent a larger trend, and which are anomalies of that individual.

6. Look for key relationships. Nearly every purchase decision—from the simplest consumer product to the most complex B2B sale—involves more than one customer. Selling a smartphone—what apps does your target group want to share with their friends? By calling out these relationships in the persona you can surface important motivations in a realistic fashion.

7. Define the user’s goals & motivations. By examining the underlying situation for each user group, your personas will move into more actionable territory. You can focus on features later. For now, think about what’s driving the user.

8. Use real user quotes in your personas. It’s nearly impossible for stakeholders to challenge actual quotes from customers. And almost as impossible to write realistic sounding quotes. So resist the urge to fabricate user quotes, but do include real ones.

9. Call out opportunities. While you have the mindshare, it’s a good time to start brainstorming on potential opportunities. For B2B clients, we created a unique set of marketing opportunities to reach each persona. Even if you don’t fulfill the majority of them, you’ll have a record of good ideas.

10. Use photography, and spend time getting it right. It’s human nature to remember faces better than words. These photos will be instantly recognizable and persist longer than the fine detail of your text, especially to team members outside the immediate design group.

11. Be honest about your product. If your project goal is to gain more customers, you need to appeal to those prospects that aren’t an easy sell. Be upfront about the areas where your product is less compelling, and you’ll have a more actionable persona.


The Takeway

Obviously, the point of all this is not to say that personas should be stricken from the record. Precisely the opposite. They’re an irreplaceable tool in the user-centered design process – when done well.

If you want to learn more about how Extractable can help you in the Discovery process, drop us a line. We’d be happy to chat.


Using Content to Shine a Light on Clean Energy

March 3rd, 2015

Silicon Valley rivals Apple and Google recently announced their (separate) commitments to major renewable energy projects[1]. Apple announced an $850M deal to purchase solar power from a plant based in Monterey, CA. Not to be outdone, Google revealed its plan to purchase power from a wind farm 100 miles away in the Altamont Pass.

It’s exciting to see these iconic brands very publicly demonstrate their commitment to clean energy. Given their enormous consumer-facing businesses, it’s interesting to consider the impact of their example on people contemplating their own energy use.

Regardless of the often-heated debate around climate change, there’s no question we’re seeing increasingly easier consumer access to viable forms of clean energy. Perhaps the most visible instance of this is home solar panels, which companies like Sunrun, SolarCity, and Sungevity promise will generate long-term cost savings with environmentally responsible technology.

As profound as the announcements by Apple and Google are, it will take more than a few press releases and social media posts to measurably influence people’s thinking about clean energy choices – especially when it’s the energy fueling their homes.

Marketers have a tall order in seeking to upend people’s established beliefs about public utilities and motivating them to act when the subject matter is marred by connotations about cost and viability. With these conditions, effective content strategy, planning, and execution can be the difference between facilitating legitimate consideration and falling flat before awareness has been cemented.

In delivering intelligent, relevant, and actionable information about clean energy options, there’s an opportunity to elevate the situation beyond simply addressing questions and concerns and transcend to empowering people to make environmentally responsible decisions for their future.

Facing this difficult marketing challenge, here are five ideas for using content to intelligently and effectively communicate the value and ethos of clean energy technology to consumers:

  1. Take an “Outside-In” Approach: Design content to be easily digested by someone who might not understand the technology, or who could easily stumble over the jargon rife in government and utility-sponsored incentive programs. Rather than simply stating a singular point of view, showcase peer thinking via surveys, as well as expert commentary from academics for those who are interested in learning about the science behind the technology.
  2. Involve the Audience: Simple activities like quizzes are effective at getting people to identify and recall important concepts. When dealing with a technology that is the subject of considerable skepticism, it’s imperative to ensure accuracy and clarity of facts as consumers cement their awareness and understanding of the options available to them.
  3. Embrace Localization: There are differences in clean energy installation availability and incentive programs across states and local ordinances creating potential for confusion. Matching users with content that is specific to their location helps eliminate this risk and streamlines the transition from consideration to action.
  4. Get Visual: Studies have shown people remember 10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read, and 80% of what they see and do. Graphical and pictorial representations can go a long way in helping people connect actions and results. Showing people the cost-savings and environmental benefit can help to reinforce the value of the technology.
  5. Continually Optimize: To ensure continued relevancy and accuracy, a content calendar can guide the selection of new and existing assets and help when planning to update or archive outdated content. This further reduces the risk of confusion from outdated information and ensures people are equipped with the most valuable insights for making a commitment. Content calendars can help take advantage of changes due to seasonality and ensure consistency with the product roadmap as it evolves.

You can see these five ideas in action on the website Extractable designed for Energy Upgrade CA—a state initiative to help Californians take action to save energy and conserve natural resources, help reduce demand on the electricity grid, and make informed energy management choices at home and at work. You can get the details on how we approached the opportunity and developed the strategy to deliver amazing results in our Energy Upgrade CA case study.

Before content can be amazing, it has to be useful. Given the competing messaging that exists around the cost and benefits of home solar installation, there’s a distinct need to help people understand the facts about clean energy and their own energy use.

Starting with home solar installation, there’s an opportunity to educate consumers about the collective power of individual, environmentally responsible decisions. With tech titans like Apple and Google providing a very visible commitment to clean energy practices, the moment is ripe for effective content marketing to drive home the point for consumers.