Persona development may be rooted in marketing, but it can offer important lessons for instructional designers, too.
You may have heard of user-centered design: the design approach that prioritizes the user’s wants and needs above all else. Our instructional designers have found that creating learner personas, a technique adapted from user-centered design, can help us to produce effective learning experiences.
What Are Learner Personas?
As defined in Learning Solutions, “A persona is an archetype: a composite learner who encapsulates the traits, preferences, level of experience, and interests that are representative of a slice of the actual learner population.”
Creating personas has its roots in marketing, but developing personas for your training project can be helpful to ensure you are designing for your learners’ needs. The process for creating learner personas is similar to the traditional learner analysis found in the ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) instructional design model.
In fact, creating learner personas is sometimes referred to as the next generation of learner analysis. It helps you go beyond a typical analysis and paint a picture of the person for whom you're designing a learning experience. It also offers a way to document your analysis.
Some clients have expressed concern that the process of creating learner personas feels like stereotyping. It’s important to acknowledge that the process does rely on generalizations. In fact, we need to generalize to create the personas. The distinction is that stereotypes are characteristics assigned to all members of a group, while generalizations are descriptions of a group based on its members.
How Do I Develop Learner Personas?
First, it is ideal to observe and interact with the learners first hand. However, instructional designers often have challenges in obtaining access to the learners—in these cases, we must either rely on our project stakeholders to share their knowledge of the target audience or conduct our own research.
Here's what this looks like in practice. For a recent project, our instructional designers developed training to support users in navigating a complex web-based data entry system. First, we collaborated with the project stakeholders to develop learner personas. During a two-day workshop, our stakeholders shared with us that there were four different types of users in their data entry system.
We assigned each stakeholder to one of these types of users and then handed them markers to draw us pictures of their learners on easel pad. As part of these drawings, we asked the group to name the learners and give us a small biographical sketch of them. In fact, we refer to our learners by name—Nancy, Marty, and Susan—to humanize them.
Then, we asked stakeholders to identify how the learners interact with the system. What were the common pain points and challenges? In this case, our stakeholders interact with the learners on a regular basis, so they were able to provide ample insight.
Finally, we conducted interviews with our target learners, which helped us confirm what we heard from the stakeholders. It also helped us build empathy towards those learners—a critical piece of the process. If you can imagine how your learners are spending their time, you are better positioned to develop a learning experience that will resonate with them.
Applying Persona Knowledge to Design
We can bring back learner personas throughout the development process to ensure that we continue to design effective solutions. Throughout the process, we can check in on Nancy and Marty and make sure that the learning solution we design for them will work for them. Are we helping Nancy do her job better? We can ask at every stage of the design process, what would Nancy want? What would be most helpful to Marty at this point?
In addition to building empathy for the learners, developing personas encourages instructional designers to think about what the learners need from a bottom-up approach. We often begin projects with a list of learning objectives that our clients believe that learners need to master. But if we began our projects by asking the learners what they need to know, we could develop training that is focused on meeting the learner’s pain points and challenges.
Our teams design experiences that are driven by the learners’ needs, and incorporating persona development into our projects helps us to do just that. We can’t ignore our learners; ultimately, they are our clients’ customers and, as a result, our customers. Learning personas should focus on:
- Goals and attitudes: What drives or motivates your learners? What is their attitude about learning? About the content you are teaching?
- Behaviors: How do your learners currently experience training? What do they like? Or what don’t they like?
- Visual and sensory preferences or needs: How should we design the learning so it meets their needs. For example, If we know they have low bandwidth internet connections, then we should make sure that we don’t include too much multimedia that will keep the learners from effectively using our training solution.
- Educational level: Do your learners have advanced degrees?