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Optimizing Conversions with Common User Scenarios

Posted on 9.02.2014

By Brian Lewis

If you’ve ever run a marathon, you’re familiar with the term “hit the wall.” This is a point right around mile 20 where the body’s store of glycogen (energy) is depleted, leaving you exhausted and challenging your will to finish what you started.

Web visitors have a similar wall, but it’s based on cognitive exhaustion rather than physical. When visitors go to a website that requires them to work too hard to accomplish their tasks, they hit a wall, unable to finish what they started. In Web terms, they abandon.


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People go to websites to accomplish something, and if their tasks involve any amount of research or new learning, some cognitive load will naturally be required. Websites cause unnecessary and unexpected additional mental processing when they don’t clearly and immediately address a visitor’s query. Users hit their mental wall when they have to expend time and energy trying to figure out how to accomplish their tasks.

Being Contextually Perceptive

One of the ways to avoid overloading visitors is by being contextually perceptive. A website that is contextually perceptive is one that seems tuned in to the state of mind of its visitors, understanding the circumstances surrounding their visit – not just from a task perspective but also the sequence of events that led to this moment. Being contextually perceptive means understanding visitors’ biases, their knowledge level, their anxieties and their expectations.

When you are contextually perceptive and understand your visitors’ roles, sites can be designed to enable visitors to do what they want to do, not force them to do what you want them to.

Enter the User Scenario

User scenarios are the means to creating a contextually perceptive site. They are the roadmap not just for the design of homepages, but also for key usability and design elements such as the information architecture, the overall page layout, how information is prioritized on each page, and even what colors and design elements to use.

User scenarios differ from personas in that they place equal importance on both the visitor’s role and his or her task. Scenarios look not just at what a visitor is trying to accomplish, but also at their motivations, abilities, desires and fears. This is key, because a particular task will be approached differently by different people, depending on the personal context the visitor brings to a visit.

Roles and Goals

User scenarios are comprised of two elements; the specific role that the visitor is playing and their intent (or goal).

Roles generally describe the type of visitor (for example, in a B2B environment that might be experts, influencers and researchers) as well as the defining characteristics of the visitor. Characteristics might include level of knowledge, where they are in the buying cycle, how price conscious they are, their motivation for completing the task and their urgency.

Goals are intents – things people are trying to accomplish when they come to a site. A helpful way to think about goals and visitor intentions is to think about the four stages a person goes through when researching and ultimately buying something: attention, interest, desire and action (see below). Within each of these stages, visitors will likely have different intents, for example collecting research, comparing similar products, evaluating prices or making purchases.


4 Stages of Conversion

Discover effective ways big-name brands address the attention, interest, desire and action of each online consumer at wsm.co/4cstages.


Creating Your User Scenarios

Before constructing user scenarios, an internal team must first be assembled. Include people from sales, customer service, tech support and anyone else who has contact with prospective customers.

Distribute different color sticky notes to team members according to the functional area they represent. Ask everyone to use the sticky notes to write about a common type of customer or visitor that they’ve been in contact with. Each sticky note will be the framework for a user scenario, and should include a summary statement (short phrase that identifies who the person is and what they are trying to achieve), the task and intent (which provides more detail than what is addressed in the summary, including what stage of the buying cycle the visitor is in), the context (describing the visitor’s emotions and motivations instead of logic) and subtasks (which are often more logic-based). Once the team has completed its assignment, organize the sticky notes on a whiteboard according to buying stage, remembering that the different colors represent different functional departments in the organization. Condense similar, overlapping user scenarios and get rid of those that are not truly “common.”

After the team’s ideas about common user scenarios have been received, start looking at the data. Run different Web analytics reports that show visitor paths segmented by keyword data, referral source category, entry page and device. You can also create visitor surveys, look at social conversations and survey people at different trigger points on the site (exit pages, repeat views of the same page and so on). Try to get an understanding of not only who is converting, but also who isn’t — and why. Then, visit competitors’ sites to see what visitors are experiencing when they attempt to complete the same task elsewhere. Add all of this data to those sticky notes to come up with a complete picture of the most common user scenarios.

When complete, try to have no more than five user scenarios. Remember, for the purpose of optimizing a site, the goal is to understand the most common users, not to exhaustively profile every individual user.

Here is an example user scenario of someone shopping for after-market wheels for his car. Summary: Shopper is new to the auto aftermarket, wants to learn about options for custom wheels for his car.

Task & Intent: He’s early in the decision-making process. Wants to learn about what features are important.

Context: He doesn’t know what wheel sizes fit his 2013 BMW 335i. He likes the look of a wider tire.

Specific Subtasks: He wants to understand why certain features matter. He wants to explore which wheel options are available to fit wider tires on his car. He needs to see if there are qualified installers in his area.

Putting User Scenarios to Work

Now that the most common users and what they are trying to accomplish is understood, it’s time to evaluate your site through their eyes. Become each of these defined users and try to accomplish a task from their perspective. As you play the role of each scenario and encounter conversion roadblocks that users are experiencing every day, document the journey through screen grabs, noting unmet expectations, elapsed time and feelings (frustration, impatience, aggravation, surprise).

Once you have walked in your visitors’ shoes, use the findings to inform an optimization process. If you’re ready to take on a full-site redesign, user scenarios will help create a contextually perceptive site that effortlessly meets the needs of your most common visitors. If you are conducting testing, your user scenarios will provide lots of ideas for how to clear conversion roadblocks. And if you are constantly being asked to incorporate new bells and whistles, user scenarios will be a valuable reminder of what’s important to a site’s most common users.

Brian Lewis is director of optimization at SiteTuners, where he works with clients to diagnose conversion barriers, streamline conversion paths and support test-planning efforts.

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