When designing a new learning experience, it’s important to have a deep understanding of the learners. Learners are complex individuals – arriving on your doorstep with the baggage of prior learning (both good and bad), unique experiences, and a variety of conflicting demands on their time. In order to design the best experience for our learners, we need to take a deep dive into understanding who they are and what they need from our experience. This is where learner personas can come in.
Learner personas build on a concept from User Experience (UX) design, which are referred to in that context simply as “personas.” A persona is an imaginary character you design to represent your typical learners. A persona is a way to capture some of the details about the people who you are designing instruction for, and to share those details with others on the design team. Personas can be useful when developing a single course, or when designing an entire curriculum. You can use the personas to guide your understanding of how your learners will react to the experience.. Refer to the personas throughout the design process, keeping them in mind to ensure their needs will be met by your instruction.
How To Develop Learner Personas
Personas are meant to represent real people, but do not typically represent just one person. You should begin by gathering data on your learners, through surveys, interviews, or observations. The more information you gather, the better. Compile this information, and then look for common themes and threads that tie the individuals together. Use these themes to form personas that are reflective of key members of your audience. Narrow your focus to just a few personas – 3 or 4 at most – and use the data you collected to construct the details. Consider physical (age, appearance, location), social (relationships, connections) and technological (skills, devices) characteristics as you develop your personas. A photograph can really help bring the personas to life, as can quotes that you can imagine the personas saying.
What Does A Persona Look Like
Personas typically fill just one page – so the graphic layout becomes important as you try to fit a lot of detail into a small space. One page personas are easy to pass around with others on your team, or to hang in your office as a reminder to consider their perspective in your design. The categories of information that are captured in a persona can be diverse – but it’s important that you consider which categories are most relevant for your project. Some ideas include:
- Name and title
- Wants & Needs
- Inhibiting Factors
Why Personas Are Important
In his Closer Look at Personas, Shlomo Goltz identifies five key reasons to use personas in the development of UX projects, which also ring true in the development of instructional design projects:
- Build Empathy
Remind us that our learners are real people, with real goals and facing real challenges; Help us look at things from a different perspective
- Develop Focus
Ensure our designs are meeting our original goals, and measure the effectiveness of our designs to meet the needs of our learners
- Form consensus
When working on a team, help establish a common view and rally around a common vision. Make sure everyone is on the same page.
- Make & Defend Decisions
When facing a crossroads in the decision-making process, return to the persona for guidance – what would this person want? how would this person respond?
- Measure Effectiveness
Role play using personas to determine effectiveness of the design and the overall instructional experience.
As an example, here are two personas I developed for our MS in Instructional Design program at Quinnipiac University. These personas represent two different types of students who enter our program – one with a background in higher education, and the other in K-12 public schools. These personas could be used to evaluate the current program structure in order to ensure it’s meeting the needs of real students.