Social Networking Made in China – Part 4 (Of 4)

by Ian Roberts

In this final blog post, I will describe how a social networking site in China was shaped using simple user research and the resulting development of user personas.

User Personas

Personas are fictional descriptions representing different types of users of a product and are widely used in developing software, websites and applications. Developing personas is a way of understanding user goals, needs and behaviours and help guide decisions about different features, kinds of interaction, design, layout and so on. Although the persona is fictional it should be based on research of ‘real’ users and this is usually done through interviewing.

Personas are sometimes criticized for over-generalizing, and assuming you already know your target audience reasonably well you may wonder what can actually be learnt from a user persona exercise that you didn’t already know – are they more for support than enlightenment?

For me, the value of a persona exercise is not in the finished persona per se (although it is a useful document to have), but in the process of getting there. The discussion, debate and questions that are asked in order to produce this prototypical user, force you into thinking and analyzing in greater depth than you might otherwise do.

Later in this post, I will give some examples of decisions that were made at the user persona stage that helped to shape the final website.

Developing Personas

The website in question is an educational website aimed at English learners in China, more specifically it was aimed at university aged undergraduates, with aspirations for working or studying abroad.

The actual development of the personas took one day and involved around 10 people. This team was made up of individuals of different ages, with different backgrounds and with representatives from both mainland China and Hong Kong. For this project, a total of 4 personas were created that represented learners of English from different geographical regions, different levels of language ability and different motivations.

One important thing that emerged during the persona exercise is that we had completely forgotten about 2 important user groups. Whilst our focus for the site had been on learners, we realized that there were hidden users i.e. teachers and parents who were, in fact, important influencers and we therefore subsequently developed personas for these 2 groups.

In creating the personas we did 3 things. Firstly, we described in detail everything we knew about this user. We gave them a name, a personality; we talked about their interests, aspirations, pain points in life, and about their use of technology and their motivation (or not) for learning English. The second thing we did was to think about a typical ‘day in the life’ of our user since we were interested in finding out where this particular website might fit into the lifestyle of the user. The final part of the exercise was to condense the information gathered and put it into a presentable format (below).

So what did we learn from this? Once our personas had been created we sat down again to go through them and look for anything obvious that we had so far neglected to consider or had misjudged in the development of the site so far. Here are four examples:


One of the first things we learned was that mobile was going to be important. We had already given some thought to mobile delivery, but it was more along the lines of ‘it would be nice to have’ rather than being ‘essential’.

In the persona exercise, we discovered that Chinese students mostly live in dormitory-type rooms with perhaps one internet connection shared amongst 6 people. University networks are notoriously slow and therefore students tend to browse the web on their mobile phones in their dorm rooms, in and around the campus and also in the class. Students were also far more likely to have a high-end phone than their own computer. We could see that a mobile version of the site was actually going to be a higher priority than had been originally thought and we subsequently developed the mobile version that incorporated all of the social networking features of the site in parallel with the development of the main site.

Language Support

One other important decision that we had overlooked concerns language support. We had assumed that since the aim of the site was to teach English that the default language of the site should itself be in English. Whilst we had considered language support in terms of offering glossaries and translations of content it was evident from the discussion in the personas exercise that users would expect the site to be entirely in Chinese in terms of navigation, copy and micro-copy. As such a multi-lingual version of the site was developed and the default language was set to be Simplified Chinese.


Often when developing personas you think in terms of users who need or want to use your site – you think of characters who are aspirational i.e. they want to buy your product, but during our discussions, we realized that the majority of learners of English in China have low (or no) motivation to learn English. It is a subject that Chinese students are required to take and pass at university, rather than a choice.

Selling education online is a difficult thing – for me, it is the equivalent of getting a child to eat a piece of tofu instead of a chocolate bar. We knew from our research that of the 124 million social network users in China, entertainment in the form of music, video and online games was the main reason for going online – studying online was nowhere to be seen. So our discussion moved onto how we could create a website that was both educational and entertaining – in effect how could we chocolate-coat that boring piece of tofu.

The answer to this was to take aspects of gaming and interactions from the gaming world and apply them to the social network. We did this by creating profile pages where users could upload a custom avatar and where they could interact with other users through a message wall and create their own ‘buddy list’. Users were then rewarded with points for interactions and contributions, which were redeemed for badges giving them a ranking and status within the community. With over a 120,000 registered members and millions of interactions per year the site seems to have struck a reasonable balance between education and entertainment.

Podcasting vs downloading

One final area relates to content. The original plan for the website had been to include podcasts as a major content type, but we were soon to discover that ‘podcasting’ as a concept was not widely used amongst Chinese users, to the point where the Chinese version of iTunes at the time didn’t have a podcast section.

Instead, we discovered that users tended to download audio files (often illegally) to play on their computer or mobile device (Baidu the largest search engine in China is the place Chinese users go to find and download illegal sharing of music and audio).

As a result, instead of offering feeds and subscriptions to content we incorporated an audio player into the page to allow for online listening as well as providing a link to download the file.

The examples above demonstrate how really quite important decisions in the development of the site resulted from the relatively straightforward exercise of creating personas and it is a stage I would recommend all website owners to conduct to get them to really focus in on their users and their needs.

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