From Personae to Narrative Experience Mapping

User Personas

We get this. We carefully profile our users to develop personsae that we can design to. I don’t have any argument with that, good job. But we need to take it two steps further.

Step one: Develop Site Personas

The first is to be really brave and write yourself a persona of your site as it is now. Take a step back and try to see your site with anthropomorphic eyes (your users do this). Does that theme you downloaded look like a cheap suit? Does that clip art make you look like you are wearing an old tie, or your dads? How about the writing, do you sound like a salesperson? Like a cold caller with your ‘optimised solutions’ and ‘unique personalisation’.

Go on, go the whole way and ask yourself — If this site was a person what would they be like? Give them an age, where they live, occupation, car they drive, their family profile, hobbies and a dark secret.

Was that scary?

Maybe — it’s unlikely, but just maybe — this site persona is a perfect fit for your user persona. If you’re selling to cheap salespeople then a cheap saleperson site persona promising the inside line might just be perfect.

Users make snap judgements about your site because that’s what users do in life — we make snap judgements about people too, we know in less an a second whether someone is likely to make it into the ‘circle of trust’. We look at what they are wearing, what they sound like and what their behaviour is to us. We are acutely attuned to mixed signals, we can feel instantly when someone contradicts themselves, know it when they announce what they are clashes with what they do. Except if they are a psychopath, fake their way into our circle of trust and then take all your money, but that is a different story.

Generally for us to trust someone it all has to move along together — the look, the talk, the behaviour, the conversation.

Step two: Write yourself a Narrative Experience Map

That’s something I just made up. A narrative experience map. Sounds zeigeisty and I can just see the article in .net magazine, or on UX matters. But since we are talking about people here let me introduce you to one of the oldest narrative experience maps in existence — it’s called a script.

Now there are people who are experts in such things, they are called writers. They’ve been closely examining these moment to moment relations of people for millenia. So why don’t we write the scene of your user and your site coming together?

Lets call them ‘Narrative Experience Maps’ because that sounds good, but these are, basically plays. So what we need is an experienced playwright.

Oh, that’s me (no, really). Luckily I am at a loose end this morning and on the promise of giving myself some related work in the future on I will accept the gig for nothing.


Lets give ourselves a genre and a lead character.

Lucy is getting married. She’s in her late twenties, she’s good fun but prone to being a bit lippy when things don’t go her way, she’s someone you want on your team, that’s for sure. The guy she is marrying is charming but a bit impractical, if she left the key moments in their relationship up to him they would still be in a flat with a futon, a 52" 4k and a sky box. But he earns allright and he wants to buy her an engagement ring. Lucy already has a wedding ring (her darling Grandmother’s) so she knows that the engagement ring has to work with the wedding ring. She has set a budget and has sent out indications to the boyfriend of what he should be expecting to spend. £1500. About the same as that new 72" curved Samsung he saw in Currys the other day. But in his heart he knows what is more important, at base he is good guy. Lucy knows that anything more expensive would seem greedy and anyway something too big will overpower the wedding ring and that’s not how it’s meant to work.

So she wants an engagement ring to go with an ornate diamond and sapphire ring, for about £1500, and of course, like anything that you need to wear for life, she wants to see it first. That’s our genre then, high-value B2C ecommerce.

To distract herself from her horrible job in middle management inside the NHS she idly plays with her ipad while sitting next to her husband to be while he watches the latest Netflix boxset. She angles her body slightly away from husband to be so he can’t see the screen and uses her second best friend, Goggle Shopping, to see what she can find under ‘Diamond Engagement Ring London’.

So far so good. But what I want you to do is cue up your Google search results like they were real people. Put ten people in a room in order. Remember that this is what you are doing to your user, you are meeting her cold and you are competing with nine or so other people to get their trust. Not money yet, trust. As in all good personal relationships talk about money comes later.

So now let’s go back to Lucy. She walks around the first three guys, barely looking at them .They are standing on a gold plated winners dias which they have obviously paid for — she thinks that they are trying too hard. This is about a ring, a commitment for life, not a discount! She then goes to the first man standing in the room. Let the Narrative Experience Map begin…

Narrative Experience Map: The search for Lucy’s engagment ring

Lucy approaches the the first man she comes to. 
She goes to shake the hand of STANMORE but he leaves
his hand by his side and looks over her shoulder, wondering
whether, perhaps, her boss might be with her. He is dressed
in an immaculate Hugo Boss suit and looks a million krugerands,
but he is unable to smile.
Oh hi, I was wondering if you sold
Wedding rings?

We import the finest diamonds in
the world from South Africa and sell
them to jewelers throughout Europe.

Not rings?
Stanmore grimaces, as if he's been asked to wear Lynx.
Heavens no. We're about diamonds.

Well them, since you're so smart, how
about you give me a bit of advice on
what to look for in a diamond?

That would be beneath me.

(losing patience)
Then why are you in the room?
I was asking myself the same thing
why are you in the room?

I invited you in.

Irrelevant. You are wasting my time.

It's my time! (mutters) Wanker...

She moves on to the next figure in the room, a beautifully
coiffured blonde who Lucy recognises as a famous actor,
NICOLE BLANCHET. NICOLE has this strange aura, her
hair seems to move by itself, and she is wearing the largest
diamond necklace Lucy has ever seen.
After a moment of excitement Lucy gets worried. 
She feels underdressed. NICOLE is wearing a Valentino
bias cut gown in silk with nothing visible in the way
of underwear. Lucy is wearing a comfy cotton dress
from Boden in a colorful summer print.

Aspiration! Lifestyle! Beauty!

You're Nicole Blanchett right?

Yes, and I embody all that this brand is to you.
You want to be me. Class. Sophistication. Elegance.

Well I'd settle for a Semi in Richmond
actually, and three kids and a dog.

Monaco. Seychelles. I support charity.

Right. Ummm, I was wondering if you did
engagment rings?

We are all about engagement rings.
Heritage. Tradition. Family.

How about Romance?

Of course darling. Romance. Lifestyle.

Nicole gets out a photo album and shows Lucy
lots of photos of herself wearing rings.
And necklaces and bracelets. Lucy purrs
Aren't they beautiful! Just like me!

Undeniably beautiful. Have you got
anything around the two thousand mark?
(looks at Lucy for the first time, with pity)
There aren't any prices. Not here.

Oh. How come?

If you come into our exclusive Bond
Street showroom we can get a saleswoman
to gaze at you witheringly and make you
feel like scum in the hope that
your boyfriend will be humiliated
into spending £5000, what do you say?
Love your work! Bye!

Aspiration! Lifestyle! Beauty!

After that humiliation Lucy desides to skip the next
woman, a sultry dark-eyed brunette who looks like she
hasn't changed her eye liner since the sixties.
The next one down is a bouncy young man who thrusts
his hand out at Lucy like he's a puppy looking for
a playmate. Meet LIONEL. He's wearing a shiny suit,
but frankly after the drubbing her ego has taken
from the high end she's ready for something different.

Brother! Engagement rings please!

Rings yeah? We got LOADS of rings.

Oh good, show me...

We got a warehouse out near Luton, but
I got some photos here, hundreds of them.

He pulls out a shoe box full of six by fours.

I wanted something in platinum, a simple
setting, with small diamond, about £1500.
Can you do that?

Yeah, course we can, hold on...
Lionel starts to flick through the photos. They all seem 
to be jumbled and in no particular order.
Hold on, won't be a minute... I'm sure
we've got... here you are!

He holds up a photo and gives it to Lucy.
She looks at it. It's not very clear, looks like
it was taken on a smart phone on someone's
kitchen bench.
Have you got a better photo?

No. But this is defintely the one you
are looking for. All the girls are
getting this one.

Are they? Which 'girls' are these?

All of them. The lot. Take my word for it.

So could I see this product?

Nah. It's a warehouse we have.
No shops. Keeps the prices down.

Right. So how much is this one?

£1500. Or, special on today, you
could buy this and get another
item of the same value for half price.

Or, you could just give me a quarter
off this item.


%25 of £1500 is the same discount
as %50 of half of £3000.

Is it?

And I don't need two engagement

Not yet innit!

(losing patience)
And is it a blood diamond?

All our stuff is real diamond,
blood, I don't know what you
are saying?

Lucy smiles at him as she walks away, at least he tried.
She looks up from the ipad and sees she has about 
ten minutes left before the program ends. One more try.
Impatient now she walks past two more jumped up 
twerps who look like they just left school and
another celebrity, this one, bizarely, a chef.
Sighing, she moves into the second room 
of ten people. Lucy sees WILLIAM. He's
got a suit on, but it's not too expensive
and not shiny. Best of all he seems
relaxed in it.
(extending his hand)
My friends call me Will.

(Shaking Will's hand)
Hi Will. I've been looking for an
engagment ring everywhere.

It can be a real drag can't it?

Tell me about it! No, actually
don't tell me about it, I've only
got a minute.

Sure, when you have time we have
a whole bunch of guides on quality
and ethics in the diamond trade.
It's all there.

Good. So what I am looking for is
an engagement ring, platinum gold maybe
a small diamond.

We have a couple of options -
there's a range of stock rings...

William shows Lucy ten large glossy photos.
Lucy looks at them. There's one she likes, 
but it's not platinum.

I like this one, but...

You can base your designs on one of
ours and then adjust it. There's a fee
for that of course. But we will help you
and we do it ourselves so you get it
right first time.

So I can design it myself? How
does it work?

We have this clever design tool here.
You can use it as much as you like.
You can save your designs and once
you're happy you can buy online.

He brings out an ipad and shows her the clever design tool.
She knows the Ikea one so she's happy with that idea.
It will end up looking like this...

William pulls out another couple of photos. These
ones are of good looking people posing happily
with their rings, and another one of their big day.
Like that dress... These models
look quite normal.

These aren't models, these are our customers.


Yes, we like to go the extra mile.

Isn't that a bit creepy? Stalking
them to their wedding?

They sent them in, unasked. Look I
know this whole online thing is a bit
weird for a ring, what we find is that most
people want to talk to us so you can come
in to one of our london shops. This
is an engagment ring after all right!


There's a boutique ten miles from you.
I can print the directions if you like,
or send them to you?


And if you tell me what you like
I can have a sample for you on
Saturday morning.

Oh, really? That one please!

Ok... I've reserved that one for
you, all done. See you then.

Thanks, bye!

Lucy turns to see her husband to be looking at her
as the credit roll starts.
Who was that you were talking to?
Just an imaginary friend... doing anything
Saturday morning?

Get it?

Ok, so that last one is a bit cheesy, but you get the idea. The site persona which includes look, language, behaviour, has to match up with the user and their expectations and experience.

It’s obvious isn’t it? But it’s really hard to get right.

Narrative Experience Mapping is one way to develop an approach to this. It’s not something you will see in many UX articles, but if you have half an ear for character it will help you distill your site persona and how it should be interacting with your customers.

Here’s a way forward:

  • The first thing — write out the dialogue with a key persona for your site as it is now.
  • Pick out a competitor, write it all out and see how they do it.
  • Write out a couple of ideal scenarios and use them to see how far away you are — what do you need to do to bridge the gap between what you have and where you want to be?

You can use these plays, sorry Narrative Experience Maps s in the same way that Agile developers use ‘Story cards’, as a reference to test and develop against. Of course you need to wrap it all up with ROI and really know what your business is, but this humanising of the user experience is what it’s all about. Get them into the circle of trust, and once they are there treat them like your sites friend.

Advanced technique

We know that showing clips of your user tests to Managers is a guaranteed way of raising money for a UX project. That’s because we are effectively turning the managers into an audience for this dialogue between the user persona (that tricky combination of want, thriftiness, lack of time and innate suspicion)and site personas (look, voice, behaviour).

So the next thing is to dramatise your Narrative Experience Maps. Unearth a thesp or two at work and do them in a presentation or as a video to make a point.

Yes, you will need to be very comfortable with your position at work before you do that, but it will get your point across better than a paper. Aren’t we sick of papers?!

Wasn’t this meant to be productive fun?

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