The What and Why of Proto-personas in Web Design

Proto-personas foster empathy for customers and align your team around a common goal

Successful website design projects don’t start with design.

Instead, the best websites start with a solid understanding of your audience, distilled into a set of proto-personas. Proto-personas are one of the most useful and lasting outcomes of user research. Business strategy, marketing, sales, and yes, your web design team (đź‘‹ hi there!) can each use personas to inform their work.

What is a proto-persona?

A proto-persona is a tool companies use to identify the people who visit their websites. It’s a composite picture of members from your target audience. 

Unlike formal customer personas—which need first-hand research and regular validation—proto-personas use knowledge you already have about your customers. Available data, institutional insights, and notable anecdotes are combined to create a single, relatable human profile. This makes them uniquely accessible to all businesses.

Why use them in web design?

Your web design and development team (đź‘‹ that’s us!) uses proto-personas to evoke empathetic, customer-oriented thinking. They ensure strategy, design, and development decisions are made with your audience in mind. 

Thinking of your audiences as real people helps us create a website that’s easy for them to engage with, respects their time, and helps them accomplish their goals.

For example, look at Kent, who represents big-ticket donors to education non-profit World Savvy. The impact of World Savvy’s programs motivates Kent to give. He, and other investors like him, need that information to justify endowment-sized donations. As a result of that insight, World Savvy’s home page features an interactive map showcasing its nationwide scope and vision for the future.

A proto-persona for an education nonprofit is shown next to a screenshot from the nonprofit's website. The screenshot shows a section that was developed based on insights from the proto-persona.

Proto-personas also act as a shared reference point between you, your web design team (👋 us again!), and your company’s stakeholders. They establish context and create a structure for decision-making. In other words, proto-personas allow the entire team to stay aligned throughout the website redesign project.

So, how are proto-personas made?

We weren’t kidding when we said that proto-personas are uniquely accessible: All you need is your team’s minds and an hour of their time. Plus, proto-personas can take many forms. They can be loose and sketchy, columns in a spreadsheet, or designed and branded.

A rough and sketched proto-persona is shown next to a designed and organized proto-persona.

No matter the format, a good proto-persona includes:

  • A name — this represents a real person, after all
  • Their role, or a description of the audience they represent
  • Demographic information, including age, location, and job title
  • Their goals related to your business
  • Behaviors or habits that define their day-to-day, such as browsing while commuting, making decisions with another person, or multitasking.
  • Their technical skills — are they savvy with multiple devices, or are they a novice with an older desktop computer?
  • Relationships that will affect their decision to buy from or work with you

The proto-persona workshop

Your team is the most important input to a successful proto-persona work session. When we run these workshops, we recommend inviting a cross-functional team of 4-10. Leadership or key stakeholders should be there, but don’t forget to include people who work directly with customers. A salesperson, for example, will bring first-hand insights that will ground the proto-personas in reality.

As a team, list the types of people who will come to your website (you’ll probably have 3-5). Then, split into smaller groups. Each group will select one audience type to turn into a proto-persona. We like to use a worksheet for this part and fill it in with the basic information listed above. Don’t forget to bring it to life with a name, quotation, and photo or sketch.

This is the proto-persona worksheet used at Glantz Design. A blank version is shown next to a filled-out version.

Once each group has completed their worksheet, ask them to share their proto-persona’s story. Discuss each as a team and ask yourselves:

  • Is this an accurate representation of a customer type?
  • What do you wish you knew about this person?
  • Which proto-persona is your priority audience?

Proto-personas make for useful websites

You have your proto-persona, but now what?

Use proto-personas to evoke empathy and keep your entire team aligned throughout your website project. Thinking of website visitors as real people ensures that your design team (👋) builds the right thing for your audience—a site that is uniquely useful to them.

Holly Leach always designs with narrative in mind—every design decision should support a cohesive story and its comprehension. She lives in Chicago and spends her weekends baking, reading, and running.
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