One thing we can learn from the field of User Experience design is how to create user personas, better known as learner personas in the world of eLearning. Personas are well-developed fictional profiles that reflect audience member groups for whom we are designing a course.
These audience groups are prototypes of learners in your target audience that share common characteristics, such as their training goals, job responsibilities, educational background or skill level. Every course has at least one audience group and most courses have several.
Why Create Personas?
Creating personas can help designers become more aware of their audience. Thinking through what a particular audience group needs and how they will react as they proceed through a course provides a tangible focus for the design. With a persona in mind, the designer might build more engaging lessons and discover new ways that learners can construct knowledge.
In truth, many designers probably carry around a model of what their audience members are like. But developing personas helps to formalize the models so they can be documented, shared and used throughout the design process. This creates a consistency and unity in who your audience members are across the entire design and development team.
Gather Information First
The most effective personas are going to emerge out of an audience analysis that includes interviews and real conversations with sample audience members as well as supervisors and stakeholders in the training. This is one of the best ways to ensure your personas reflect reality rather than a projection of your ideal learner. Other sources of information might come from your client’s printed collateral and website or discussions with subject matter experts or personnel office.
With this information in hand, write a descriptive profile of an audience group member. Give this person a name and borrow traits from real individuals of the group if you were lucky enough to hold interviews. Describe your persona’s demographics, job responsibilities, motivations for taking the training, experiences at work, attitude toward online learning, skill and educational levels and so on. Some groups go so far as to add a photo to their persona. Developing personas can be a collaborative process done with team members or created solo.
How To Use Personas
In the end, you should have several personas that provide a tangible sense of your audience members. Always share them with your team. Keep the personas in mind throughout design and development as though they are someone you know. Refer to them. Converse about them. Make them your imaginary friend. “Would Kathy want to spend her time playing this game?” “What would it take for Joe to pass the certification test?”
The Persona Debate
In User Experience circles there is an ongoing debate over whether personas are a help or a hindrance. Some contend that personas are a poor approach for understanding the needs and wants of the audience. Detractors say that personas promote distance between designers and users; that they are a product of what designers wish their users would be like. They say personas don’t reflect unique individuals and they prevent designers from having empathy for their users.
Avoid the Traps
My recommendation would be to try personas the next time you’re working on a project with multiple audience groups. Then follow these tips to avoid the traps:
- Try to have conversations with sample members of your audience groups. Even a few conversations can help you remember the individuals behind the persona.
- Ensure the use of personas helps your team personalize and customize the design. If you find it has the opposite effect, you’re headed down the wrong path.
- Watch that stereotypes and social judgments don’t slip into your personas. These unrealistic profiles defeat the purpose.
- Build empathy for the audience groups. The more you can imagine their life and their story, the more likely you are to understand who they are.
This article is updated from the original 2009 version.