What are personas and how can they benefit your business?

Personas are much misunderstood and often overlooked marketing fundamental. Get them right and you’ll target the right users with the right messaging that builds brand advocacy. Get them wrong and users will quickly leave for a better online experience elsewhere. We spoke to one of our leading UX/UI Designers, to find out more: 

What are proto-personas and personas?

“Proto-personas and personas are often confused as they both server the same purpose which is to define your typical users to improve targeting and user experience.

“Proto-personas are a lightweight first step which can be ideal for smaller projects. We work with stakeholders to identify and build a handful of ‘typical users’ who constitute their target audience. Understanding who uses the website, and identifying their needs and challenges, can be used to inform all elements of the business from web build to ongoing marketing.

“Personas go one step further by undertaking research to validate and refine proto-personas. Both take a data-driven approach and dig-deep into analytics, but personas extend the research by getting to know your ‘real world’ customers. We use a variety of research methods, but surveys and interviews are the most common and the findings are always illuminating.

“Talking to users spotlights usability issues and opportunities that affect what they are actually trying to achieve, not what we think they are trying to achieve. Stakeholders often have misconceptions about what does and what doesn’t work on a website, and business decisions are much easier to make if you get to know your users. 

“Proto-personas and personas allow us to explore a set of typical user journeys and build a rich digital experience that supports both client goals and business objectives. Further down the line they can be used to provide a clear reference point to navigate through discussions where decisions need to be validated against user intent.”

When’s the best time to create personas?

“Personas should be used from the get-go when you set out your core business objectives, otherwise you’ll be forced to make potentially costly decisions blindfolded. Personas play a leading role in developing strategy, and of course they are key to UX and design, but they should really be referenced at every level.”

What do proto-personas and personas look like?

“At Ridgeway we customise personas to reflect client and project needs. It stands to reason that big businesses who know their users will benefit from a different set of outputs to young start-ups trying to break new markets. However, outputs always centre around the creation of fictional composites of target users.

“Data provides the foundation for building personas, but it’s hard to empathise with data so we give it a character and a personality. It’s essential to create believable identities to help focus persona use within a business, so we cover everything from biographical and demographical information to motivational and aspirational desires.

"When developing your personas think about how they are presented. A list of bullet points will not evoke the same level of empathy, they need to also contain fictitious information to bring the persona to life.

"For example, let’s compare the below:

  • Married, 35-year-old, Female
  • Part-time HR Manager
  • Lives with her husband and two children


Harriet is a busy working mum to Benjamin and Charlotte who is balancing a career with raising a family. She is an educated on-the-go-women who uses online resources to help her in all aspects of her life. Her husband, Chris, has a long commute and stressful job so the day-to-day running of the household and caring for the children is down to her. Harriet is time poor, when she is not at work she is taxiing her children to various activities, preparing meals for her family and helping with homework.

"Both descriptions are based on the same research data but with the second you are more easily able to emphasise with her and the challenges she faces in her life. Make sure you give your personas a name and photo to make them believable.

 “To get insight into what really makes a persona tick we need to dig into their psyche, as it’s what’s happening on the inside that shapes behaviour on the outside. We use what’s called ‘empathy mapping’ to create accessible visual representations (or maps) of what really drives a persona.

“Empathy maps can cover a lot of ground, but we always include explorations of: Goals, Needs, Feelings, Pain Points and Influences.

“Goals are what the persona is ultimately trying to get done, Needs are ways you could make their experience easier, Feelings unpack their emotional responses, Pain Points where they are struggling and Influences how their environment influences behaviour.

“Understanding personas helps you identify onsite ‘touch points’ where users would benefit from additional support (whether it’s messaging, signposting or CTAs) to help them continue their journey.”

How do you identify and build personas?

“At Ridgeway we take a collaborative approach to building personas and run sometimes-lively workshops. To get the most out of personas it’s essential to get stakeholder buy-in and that means exploring and challenging perceptions. Key decision-makers aren’t always used to being challenged and our data-driven approach really helps to get the board onboard. Persona workshops are immensely valuable, and we haven’t had any blood spilled yet!”

How do you embed personas within a business?

“Socialising personas to stakeholders is key and then it’s a matter of articulating how personas can be used to add value to every level of the business. By setting the right tone the message soon trickles down through the business, removing guesswork and making sure that everybody’s pulling in the same direction.    

“We recently undertook a standalone project for Cardtronics, one of the world’s leading ATM operators, where we created personas to help their sales team better understand potential customers. Cardtronics operates in a competitive marketplace and the insight and empathy provided by personas really helped their salespeople to connect with customers giving them a real advantage.

“Marketing people are quick to spot the value of personas, and with backing from stakeholders, personas will soon be a part of day-to-day business life, after all they are your customers.”

Is there anything you’d like to add as a parting thought?

“Just to say that it’s impossible to overemphasise the importance of personas. They focus targeting, de-risk decision making and put users at the centre of your digital world. Plus they have a number of additional benefits we haven’t covered from user testing to content marketing. It sounds clichéd, but personas really are a business no brainer.”