When building any information architecture, it should always be built on a robust foundation, focusing on the primary users of the content or sites (including internal users) and their objectives in a simple format.

This should always be in a simple format that explicitly links users and their objectives to content information architecture (IA).

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at how you weave actionable insights into a content strategy, using a variety of techniques from various disciplines which, here at Epiphany, we have evolved over a number of years from both a client and agency perspective.

So, first things first… why ‘users’ and not ‘personas’?

User personas

Let’s kick this section off with a definition. A persona is:

“The aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others.” Oxford English Dictionary

However, for content user-experience specialists, persona has a specific meaning that goes beyond the above definition. More something along the lines of:

“A buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers.” (Hubspot)

So, can personas be a bad thing?

Personas don’t have to be all bad. After all, they represent the inclusion of users in our planning (outside-in thinking) and that presence is definitely a good thing.

However, this approach can also be restrictive and lead to assumptions that can be just as detrimental as simply doing whatever you think works best with no consideration for your audience.

There is a much better way but, first, let’s take a look at the case against personas, using real-world examples…

Personas by definition create their own ‘characteristic’ bubbles

Eric is retired, knows a lot about DIY, requires lots of detail, is cautious about online purchasing and needs to speak to someone on the phone before committing.

Taken together, this is a collection of aspects and behaviours that create a pseudo-solid entity.

Such an approach can be risky because it connects attributes and behaviours that don’t always belong together.

For example, Eric may be cautious about buying online and require lots of specific information but not specifically because he is older. This is simply his personality type which is also shared by much younger people of a different gender.

By linking these behaviours to other attributes within the body of a persona, we create and apply a combined stereotype (which is hackneyed and arguably derogatory) that is both limited and limiting and which is likely to lead to arbitrarily constrained decisions.

Personas don’t add as much to the final output as we think they do

By documenting that Monica likes browsing the web on her way home from work, on her iPhone, that she loves interior design and wants to wow her friends with her decor, that we’re gaining a deep understanding of our users.

However, we’re not capturing any actionable insights here.

How do we make the information we have work for us? How do we make it specific and measurable, so we can create something that works for a person with these needs, regardless of gender, age etc.?

Personas take a long time to create, and we can get bogged down in the minutia

Demographic details serve no useful purpose unless they represent part of the user goal set and characteristics and preferences tend to share the same fate.

There is often no hierarchy or structure to the insight so it becomes difficult to consistently realise it within content in a way that doesn’t confuse users who are not clones of our antediluvian Eric or Monica stereotypes.

Personas can either throw shade on real user intel, or be lost in transit

Unless the data used to create personas is empirical, then personas can become fatally flawed icons for a project, driving incorrect assumptions that are amplified throughout the process.

Or they can just be forgotten, since it’s difficult to hold an extensive series of characteristics in mind when planning and implementing information architectures or useful content.

So, what’s the alternative to personas?

Here, we will use the term ‘archetypes’. That is, a simple entity that interacts with a product or content with various goals in mind at varying times (which are of course, relevant to business strategy).

It’s important to avoid putting more flesh on these bones, otherwise there is a risk of falling into the traps above.

However, it’s important to have something, as without knowing who we’re dealing with, we stand no chance of identifying their wants, needs or problems to be solved.

How do we identify users without personas?

The answer is, in hugely valuable workshops which, at Epiphany, we call ‘who wants what, and why?’.

This exercise not only identifies archetypes and their needs but can also deliver beyond expectations when it comes to critical conversations about content.

When sales and marketing teams collaborate in this way, useful insight is gained and the outcomes are often strategically as well as tactically relevant.

The first question within these workshops should be:

Who interacts with the business on a daily basis?

This could be a job title or short description, as long as it is recognised by the group as descriptive and indicative. For example, ‘Head of Marketing’ or ‘Single parent’.

These should be written on sticky notes and attached to the wall so that participants can identify a priority order (based on business needs). This provides a way to balance copy in instances where one web page, for example, must serve two users with different needs.

It’s also a handy way to ensure that the top priority users’ objectives are captured if time is limited.

Once the users have been prioritised, write on each sticky note ‘U1’, ‘U2’, ‘U3’ and so forth (using U1a and U1b where entities are related but subordinate).

Where does user intent come in?

Following on from these workshops, once all users have been identified and prioritised, think about what the user wants from your business in relation to the first identified user (U1).

This process should be repeated until all objectives for users have been captured. There might be sticky notes with several users on them - for example, ‘needs validation’ or ‘wants a good user experience’ are common requirements.

These objectives should then be prioritised, this time thinking about users’ wants, needs and problems, and what drives them (the what and the why). This can take place as a group conversation or chosen through a vote in the room.

Label the objectives with O1, O2 etc to record the order of importance.

After the workshop, this information should be compiled in a spreadsheet and shared for participants to comment on. Merge in any user research that’s been carried out, making sure that all relevant data is captured here.

Why is user story mapping better than persona creation?

Archetypes and user story mapping take all the useful aspects of a person’s interaction with a brand and treat them as objectives that are associated with a user but are not defined as vague traits. They can be realised on-site or in the content structure and substance in a way that’s not constrained by any assumptions about our one-dimensional Eric or Monica.

The objectives are simply things that you know that people want. These could include an aesthetically pleasing website, funny content or seamless mobile experience.

These allow us to turn previously loose preferences and attributes into specific and actionable insights.

So, how can you ensure these insights make their way into planning and creating content?

User objectives in IA and content planning

Now you have a prioritised list of users archetypes and their objectives, it’s possible to start defining an information architecture (even though this process is primarily used for websites, it can work just as well across channels).

Starting with O1, build a horizontal hierarchy of pages, turning the objectives into putative page titles (H1s only at this stage) and working up a structure for the site. Label each topic with the objective number(s) that it satisfies.

This has three key benefits:

  1. You can be sure all relevant user objectives identified (i.e no user gets accidentally lost in the process) correlate the IA directly to user objectives. Therefore, the end result is user first by default
  2. Nothing superfluous can be added. If users don’t want or need it, then it’s pointless. Bear in mind that internal users have objectives too and that external users are not just customers, they also include partners and influencers
  3. The resulting ‘content matrix’ makes a robust tool for managing a website as, once the section and content owners are added, changes to content structure or substance can be managed versus original purpose.

And finally…

Once a draft page structure has been built, it can be converted into a sitemap for sign off. After this, another workshop should take place in the definition phase, to help decide on on-page content (on this in a future post).

So, in order to weave actionable insights into your content strategy, it’s important to start by gathering everyone who knows anything about customer interactions together and ask them ‘who wants what, and why?’ and record the results.

We always recommend dropping personas in favour of archetypes and attribute them with the minimum information so that they can be identified as separate entities and move all other useful data into user objectives.

If you have personas already, convert them to archetypes and create a story map with actionable insights by mapping their meaningful attributes as user objectives.

Any information architecture that you build should be based explicitly on user objectives, not around departments, competitors’ approaches or assumptions. This will ensure that you are addressing your users’ needs (as well as your own), while not wasting effort on content that will be, at best, superfluous.

Using a simple-to-maintain reference format helps to maintain the integrity of content and communications, making it impossible to adulterate the structure or substance of your content or site, avoiding the creep that leads to decreasing ROE.

The key takeaway is to put the user first in everything you do for optimal success.