Roles vs. Personas vs. Cognitive Styles

There is a lot of confusion in the landing page optimization community regarding personas, cognitive styles, and roles. These terms are often used loosely or interchangeably, with unfortunate results.

It’s time to set the record straight and cover the basics.


Roles correspond to specific classes of visitors interacting with your site. They are defined by their relationship to your Web site and call to action. The role breakdown can be basic, or it may need to be slightly more nuanced depending on your circumstances.

Here are some representative examples of possible roles:

  • Plumbing supply company: Retail customers (looking to buy an individual replacement part), plumbing contractors (need an array of parts for a specific customer job), wholesale buyers and real estate developers (need large volume price breaks and extended payment terms).
  • Dating service: Prospective member (hasn’t signed up yet), new member (has paid but hasn’t set up a complete personal profile), experienced member (has done multiple searches and contacted other members).
  • Educational-saving-plan provider: Future recipients (children under age 18), parents of recipients (who typically establish the plan), relatives and friends (who may contribute money to the plan).
  • Consumer e-tail company: New visitors (who haven’t visited your site before), returning visitors (who have visited but haven’t bought yet), first-time buyers (trying to complete their first purchase), repeat buyers (who already have their information stored in your system), e-mail list members (who have signed up to hear about future special offers).


A persona is typically a made-up prototype of a person that is used to represent important classes of potential users of a product or service. They are imagined in a lot of detail (behaviors, workplace, activities, belief systems, etc.) in order to form a more concrete image. The design or use of the product or service is then compared to the persona’s needs to determine if there is a good fit.

Roles are different than personas. In one sense, they’re more changeable because they depend on the specific relationship with a Web site. A persona is usually treated as a monolithic person with a fully-formed personality that doesn’t change.

Most people play many different roles in their daily life. In each role, their competencies, mental frameworks, and attitudes can shift dramatically.

For example, you may be confident, gregarious, and quick to make decisions during the workday. After work, you may leave the office to buy a present for a friend’s birthday party. In this setting, you may become unsure of yourself, deliberate, tentative, and afraid to make the wrong decision. So even though you’re the same person (and would presumably still be represented by the same persona), you behave completely differently in your roles as businessman and shopper.

In some other circumstances, roles are actually more stable than personas. This is often the case in landing page testing.

For example, regardless of the personalities involved, all Web site visitors to an e-commerce catalog site still need to complete the same functional tasks as part of their role as shoppers (e.g., placing items in a shopping cart and checking out). So the role of shopper can subsume the specific personas that might function in this capacity.

Cognitive Styles

Personas are also often confused with cognitive styles. There are many psychological frameworks that divide people into different temperaments. This has been done at least since the Middle Ages (the four “humors” or “temperaments” were called sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic and corresponded to emotional makeup as well as physical constitution of an individual).

For a more modern example, David Keirsey classified people into guardians, rationals, idealists, and artisans. Other breakdowns include competitive, humanistic, spontaneous, and methodical.

Tony Alessandra refers to the director, socializer, relater, and thinker. Other common personality typing systems include Myers-Briggs, and DISC.

The main point of these systems is that your cognitive style is part of your basic makeup and unlikely to change. It’s basically how your brain operates and how you take in and deal with information about the world.

In the context of landing pages, you should try to accommodate all major cognitive styles because they are all represented in the population. For example, your pages should be uncluttered for the short-attention-span crowd, but also include links to detailed supporting information for the methodical types.

Meet Tim Ash at SES Chicago on December 7-11, 2009. Now in its 11th year, the only major Search Marketing Conference and Expo in the Midwest will be packed with 70+ sessions covering PPC management, keyword research, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), social media, local, mobile, link building, duplicate content, video optimization and usability, while offering high-level strategy, keynotes, an exhibit floor, networking events and more.

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