One of the first steps in designing a successful user experience is knowing your users. Understanding their goals, needs and skills lets you to provide content and functionality that resonates with your audience. There are plenty of tools in the user experience arsenal to help such as stakeholder discussions, user interviews, and surveys.

However, by utilizing standard web analysis tools and relying on minimal direct user interactions you can actually create a powerful variation on the much talked about persona: the behavioral persona.

Traditional personas are essentially a representation of your “typical” website users as human beings: who they are (demographics), what they do, their specific circumstances, likes, and dislikes. They are an effective way (when accurate and true) to humanize these visitors. Personas allow you to empathize with your audience while designing a product or system that will better resonate with them. Personas tend to be broad and “soft” in terms of their actual relationship with the product or system itself, but are very valuable for understanding people’s attitudes, motivations and values.

So what are Behavioral Personas?

Behavioral personas are used to describe a known and relatively well-defined target audience – those who have a specific function in a company (tax advisor, attorney, scientist, air traffic controller) or a narrowly defined set of circumstances (mother at shopping mall looking for gluten-free baby foods). The definition of the user segment may have come from user research or even be customers you have defined as your target audience. The point is that you can identify the audience.

Contrary to traditional personas where the focus is on who they are (demographics, interests, etc.) behavioral personas are defined by what they do: “Matt is a legal researcher, spending 80% of his time with an online system looking to do x” , whereas the traditional persona would be more like: “Matt, a male aged 35-42 years old, is married with two children, college-educated and has three TVs in his home.”

Behavioral personas work best when you’re focusing on improving or even just getting a better understanding of a single existing system. For instance: how do tax advisors behave with this research system versus attorneys or legal researchers? When the audience is known, a behavioral persona will tell you how well the system is working for them.

How do you create Behavioral Personas?

Use your data. Again, in contrast to traditional ones, behavioral personas can be formed almost entirely by analyzing data that’s probably already on your server (e.g., site search data, web logs) and/or the information provided by Google analytics.

Ok, if at all possible, have some direct contact with actual human users. Talking to users or observing them use the system will work wonders. It gives depth and better context around your findings and personas: why are they using the system that way? What are their motivations, wishes, etc.? Invaluable insights your web log or Google Analytics will hardly give you… After all, behavioral or not, personas are human!

When should you use Behavioral Personas?

Behavioral Personas can really help you clarify four things, especially when enriched by some degree of direct human observation:

Because the data needed to create behavioral personas is readily available to you, and/or inexpensive, behavioral personas will give you fast, inexpensive and quantitative data at a fraction of the time and cost needed to create traditional personas. And the result is immediately usable to improve your existing system, backed by hard facts and numbers which will help you sell the changes internally in a way traditional personas may not.While it would be great to always be able to combine both traditional and behavioral personas into our research, in reality, time and budget often limit what we can do. So be sure to pick the right persona for the job.

Focus on your user needs, use common data and make your project a success: what more could you ask for?