The NHS Highland website had existed in its previous form for over a decade. It had long been viewed by the organisation as offering an outdated experience for service users, staff, and stakeholders; with knock-on effects for services and how NHS Highland was perceived.

In 2022, Factory 73 was commissioned to develop a new website for NHS Highland. As long-term partners, Border Crossing UX were engaged to help ensure a user centred approach was maintained throughout the process.

Aligning to NHS Digital and Scottish Approach to Service Design Principles

Both the NHS Design principles and the Scottish Approach to Service Design (SAtSD) urge those developing new digital services to share the knowledge and resources they acquire on projects with other NHS teams’. Which is why, with the full support of our partners and clients, we’ve used this post to share:

What we did

In this post we’ll share our approach to achieving two of the five key objectives we were engaged to fulfil on this project:

This involved analysing and extracting key information and insights from:

Understanding the purpose of the proto-personas

At the outset of the project Border Crossing UX collaborated with Factory 73 and NHS Highland to identify the purpose of the proto-personas to be developed. This highlighted that there were two distinct target audiences and desired outcomes for this key deliverable:

1. Internal senior leadership teams

Who needed to sign-off on the pivot from a board-centric to citizen-focussed approach to information architecture. 

2. The project team

Who needed to validate ‘discovery research’, the phasing of requirements, and have a deeper understanding of more granular user needs.

Analysing the information available

Identifying this at the outset of the process ensured we were able to do the research required to develop a set of proto-personas that informed a key strategic decision, whilst also providing a robust overview of how to phase functional requirements.

Border Crossing UX collaborated with NHS Highland to analyse the primary research and key recommendations detailed within a Website Review report developed by Graft. This provided a valuable overview of the distinctive characteristics of the NHS Highland area; including geography, demographics, digital connectivity and digital exclusion, and their implications for the future website.

“It is really important to us at NHS Highland to put people using our services first, and to design services around their needs to give them the best experience. The website is a key place to demonstrate this and using proto personas really brought that to life. We’ve had lots of positive comments about how straightforward and easy to use the new site is.”

Ruth Fry – Head of Communications and Engagement, NHS Highland

It also provided an excellent breakdown of the following:

Key user types:
Key information:
This up-front input provided excellent guidance in terms of the:

Getting into the detail

This information was supplemented by further research into digital connectivity and mobile coverage across the NHS Highland area. In addition to this, we collaborated with NHS Highland to build a deeper understanding of delivering health and care services across some of the most remote and sparsely populated parts of the United Kingdom. This involved investigating and identifying the following:

Triggers that would prompt the people to engage with NHS Highland:


These encompassed the breadth of urban centres, towns, villages, and remote settlements across one the most sparsely populated and remote parts of the United Kingdom:

This  was an iterative process. As the specific healthcare journey a person was likely to experience was heavily dependent on both location and trigger, for example:

“Kevin in Campbelltown would be directed to Greater Glasgow and Clyde for his MRI rather than up to Raigmore, as acute care for people in Argyll and Bute is provided there.”

Member of staff – NHS Highland

Close collaboration, and in-depth feedback such as this, was critical to ensuring the key variables selected were representative of both end-user needs and operational realities.

In addition to locations within the health board, two out of health board locations were also identified as these were representative of scenarios in which someone who isn’t located within the health board is searching for information on behalf of someone who does.

Investing the time to conduct this stakeholder and secondary research allowed us to define the data for 15 proto-personas that reflected a representative range of

Sharing the information that matters most

Our next step was to define the specific templates we’d use for developing and standardising the proto-personas developed for this project. This was an iterative process that resulted in us trialling different:

Wording and clarity of information is incredibly important. So, the template went through many iterations until every label and block of information served its purpose, and we found the right balance between depth and volume. This resulted in the development of a core template that was used to provide the following standardised overview of key information per proto-persona:

Choosing the right output format

We believe proto-personas should be seen as live documentation that is continuously updated as assumptions are proved/disproved and new data and insights are uncovered. That’s why we developed the output template in Microsoft PowerPoint. As doing this ensured all outputs produced would be easy for NHS Highland to govern and update.

Translating findings into representative stories

Since we had already defined the triggers for engaging with NHS Highland, this was an opportunity to take a deeper look at:

For each location and trigger we began to create outlines of people by taking a deeper look at attitudes, preferences and how these are likely to be influenced by key variables. We made sure to highlight that although the website and online information would add value to most of these situations, it may not be the solution for everyone.

We used in-depth secondary research to aggregate the data and insights required to create believable and accurate stories for all 15 proto-personas. Research into things such as what college a character might go to or what support groups operate in their local town ensured each and every proto-persona developed:

“Border Crossing UX’s thoroughness, commitment to adhering to NHS digital design standards, and impressive knowledge of the Scottish Approach to Service Design were instrumental in delivering a truly user-centred website. Their professionalism, attention to detail, and expertise surpassed our expectations. Their contributions, including translating research into phased requirements, developing target user personas, and implementing comprehensive information architecture, have made a significant impact. We highly recommend Border Crossing UX as a trusted partner for delivering outstanding results.”

Graeme McClurkin – Managing Director, Factory 73

Tips for creating representative proto-personas

Please note:

We would recommend that you align your approach to developing proto-personas to the following key variables:

  • Data and source information available.
  • Time and budget available for research and validation.
  • Purpose and desired outcome of deliverable (what are we trying to achieve or affect).
  • Target audience for the deliverable (senior decision-makers, content authors, developers, etc,)

On this project they were developed to provide:

  • Key contextually-relevant information (based on local geography, infrastructure, demographics and operational realities).
  • Senior leadership teams with context for a key strategic decision.
  • Design and development teams with a shared understanding of the breadth and disparate nature of user needs, and how requirements that fulfilled these were to be phased.

This may not be the case for your project. So, it is critical that you assess how the following approach and templates should be adapted to meet your specific requirements.

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to discuss proto-personas or find out more about how we developed a set of these for NHS Highland, please feel free to contact us.

Templates and downloads

Proto-persona Powerpoint template – Download

NHS Highland Proto-personas – Download

Key sources of information when developing proto-personas

NHS Digital service manual:

Office of National Statistics:

A series of interviews with disabled people to learn about the technology they use.

A set of user profiles which highlight the common barriers users face when accessing digital service.

An introduction to make your service more accessible.

GMC Data explorer:


Census 2021 data:

National Records of Scotland:

Scottish Government: Statistics and research:

My World, My Health:

Scotland’s Health on the Web:

Citizens Advice Scotland:


think broadband:

François Roshdy

François is director of user experience at Border Crossing UX. He specialises in helping clients continuously improve the experiences they deliver.