Do We Really Understand Personas?

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nurse.pngMy family has been dealing with a real crisis the last few weeks. My father-in-law, after 80 years of remarkable health, was suddenly hospitalized for weakness and back pain and subsequently diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. His outlook is terminal, but he wants to stay home if possible—"No nursing home," he regularly thunders. Now, I know that it's possible to care for Dad the way he wants, and I know it's possible to get coverage for it, but God bless me if I could figure that out from the Web. If you look at the Web sites of the myriad businesses that provide home health care, you'd be hard-pressed to do anything but give them a call.

Now, I don't want to be too harsh here. I know that these home health agencies are small businesses, and frankly I like the idea that they know more about health care than Internet marketing, but what I saw was ridiculous. The average site that I visited consisted of a couple of dozen pages with pictures of smiling nurses and the address and phone number of the office. They had pages devoted to the services they offered with no explanation of what you needed to do to qualify or how you might be able to pay. And no explanation of how quickly something can be put in place.

And they all seemed very similar, as if the entire industry decided to explain their "catalog" of services the same way, using jargon and catch phrases that I was unfamiliar with. (Yeah, I am impressed that you know what a "Lombardi plan" is, but I'd be more impressed if you explained it to me.) None of the sites helped me understand the big picture, and I think I know why.

The home health care business, like many industries filled with small businesses, has yet to be transformed by Internet marketing. They have Web sites because people told them they should. They filled those sites with basic information about their services, explained from their point of view. David Meerman Scott likes to say exactly what these businesses need to hear: "Customers don't give a crap about your product."

They haven't thought much about their customers. When they do (and eventually some of them will, forcing the others to follow), they will immediately realize that they have two very different kinds of customers: those needing care and those needing to arrange care for others. They'll also eventually realize, that both of these groups can be further split between those who are carefully researching a future need and those who have a crisis now.

These groups can become the basis of personas that serve as proxies for their real customers:

  • Edna (yes always give your personas real names) might be a 68-year-old widow who is sharp as a tack but is facing mobility problems. She knows that she will at some point need to retrofit her house, move, or get someone to assist her at home—perhaps a combination of the three. She has Medicare and supplemental insurance and a tidy pension left by her husband, but she isn't sure whether that's enough to pay for an arrangement she really likes without selling the house.
  • Pete is a 72-year-old whose wife is suffering from dementia. He desperately wants to stay in his home with her but his three kids are pressuring him to move to assisted living. He wants to find an affordable alternative paid for by his veteran's benefits, Medicare, or Medicaid.
  • Juanita has two elderly parents who are beginning to show signs of needing help in their home. She knows their financial situation and believes that they can afford to pay for what they need, but she's not sure if they need a live-in aide or someone who drops in on them a few times a week. She also doesn't know how intrusive such "help" would be on their treasured privacy.
  • Mike is worried about his in-laws because Dad is weakened by a terminal illness and Mom has mobility problems. Before Dad got sick, they shared household duties and got along just fine, but now they desperately need someone to help them. Dad was fiercely private about his finances, so it's overwhelming to try to think about how many choices there are and collect up the right information to see if they qualify, all during a crisis.

Did you figure out which persona I am? (Nice work there, super sleuth.) There are probably a number of different personas I am missing, but what's important is that the Web site be designed to help people in different situations.

So, couldn't the home page have some basic navigation that helped people find answers? It should be possible to find out what the choices are for services. No, that doesn't mean a list of links with arcane service names that force you to jump to each page to try to compare them against each other. It means having a solid explanation of what choices are available, with an idea of how long it takes to arrange, what they cost, what kinds of programs and insurance might cover them, and what you need to do to be ready. (For example, I found no site that explained what a live-in worker expected for a bedroom.)

It should be possible to find out what can be done quickly, and make choices from there. It should be possible to find out what can be done affordably, and make choices from there.

In the end, each person who contracts for services will need to understand speed, cost, and service options, but they might approach them in different orders based on who they are. Perhaps speed questions should be above the fold because someone in a crisis will scan and abandon more quickly, while someone looking for a leisurely tour through all the options might be planning for the future and interested in reading more. The speed answers on the site might be best presented in bulleted lists for scanability.

Now, understand, I don't really know if these are the right personas, and I certainly don't know if these would be smart design ideas based on those personas, but I do know one thing. You won't find out by posting your service catalog and waiting for the phone to ring. Instead, you need to take a shot at what you think are the right approaches and measure how many more leads you get. Perhaps long-term planners should be offered a monthly newsletter while crisis folks should be directed to the phone.

In the end, the Web offered no help to me in trying to get care for Dad. I ended up speaking with several hospital social workers who pressed lists of agencies into my hand and told me to get on the phone. I had to find out which ones were covered by which programs and which ones offered live-in vs. drop-in and which ones could handle Dad and which ones deemed him too sick for what they offer. After days of frustration, as Dad lay on a gurney from another emergency room visit after a fall in the home, I demanded to see the social worker and waited patiently while she answered my simple question: Knowing all you know about what is available and Dad's situation, what would you do if it was your Dad?

She eyed me for a moment and finally wrote down the number of an agency. "I would trust these people with my life. They are expensive, but they will do what you need. I don't know if you can get anyone to pay for it, though." So, now we are spending $1,000 a week and getting excellent care. I still don't know if we can get anyone to pay for it, as she predicted. It just struck me as ironic that the biggest financial decision I will make this year (and probably this decade) was made with absolutely no help from the Web. If even one of that long list of home health agencies had a Web site that understood who I was and what I needed, I bet I would have gone with them. I wonder how many sleeping small businesses have the same opportunity in front of them.

That previous paragraph was intended to be the ending, but Dad had other plans. It turned out that it wasn't that big a financial decision. I wrote this blog entry last week, but before I could post it, Dad died in his sleep yesterday morning. (It happened at home just the way he wanted, and the whole family had a chance to travel to say goodbye before he passed.) Thanks to everyone who gave me advice, good wishes, and prayers for our family.

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Hello, Mike,
This is the first time I've commented on one of your posts, and I must say, you did an exceptional job of explaining exactly why small businesses like these need to get help if they want to understand how their website can help their potential clients.

My favorite line in your article was this:

"They have Web sites because people told them they should."

Yes, that's completely right, so at this point they've got some funky Frontpage thing that someone's cousin's brother built for them, but now he's in the Service and no one really knows what to do with the website or where their domain name was purchased or who hosts the site.

You get what I mean. You have to start at that level with businesses like these and try to approach this in a way that ends up being sound logic all around.

What do you want your website to do for your visitors?

What do you want it to do for you?

Those 2 questions, I've found, tend to lead to the answers that then make the whole logic appear for how the website needs to be built and marketed.

You know, I think I'm going to blog a response to your post. It really hit home with me. I'd like to show it to you when I'm done if that's okay.

I am truly sorry for the trouble in your family, Mike. I'm sorry the web failed you this time. We can do better than this.


Hi Again Mike,
I posted my article, inspired by yours, over at Search Engine Guide just now.

I know this must be a really hard and busy time for you, but maybe you'll like to read this at some point:

Again, please accept my best wishes for your family at this sad time.


I'm very sorry to hear about the loss of your father-in-law. You and your family are in our prayers.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Mike Moran published on September 9, 2008 10:19 AM.

Mama Don't Take My Google Chrome Away! was the previous entry in this blog.

I Have Laptop Envy... is the next entry in this blog.

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