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Building Better Learner personas

Learner personas are vital when creating any kind of learning - but especially online learning.

A learner persona is kind of like a fictional character, made specifically to represent the sort of person who will be participating in your learning experience. In theory, what you should be able to do is look at your learner persona (or personas, as you may need more than one) and discern what your audience will need and thus how to cater for them.

Why are personas so important? Let’s look at a non-learning example. Imagine you’re having a party, and you’re trying to decide what to buy for it - how would you go about making those decisions?

Of course, you’d have to consider things like the available space and your budget - but more importantly, you’d have to think about who your guests will be. If this is a gathering of businesspeople and academics, you’d probably go for something more sophisticated like wine, elegant table settings, and soft, classical music in the background. But if you’re planning a party for your eight-year-old, you might make it Disney-themed, have heaps of fun foods and balloons and ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ blasting in the speakers.

The choices you make when creating something for a certain audience will depend very heavily on the preferences and abilities of the audience themselves. Children cannot drink wine and generally have no appreciation of classical music - meanwhile your sophisticated businesspeople will likely feel indignity at the sight of cupcakes with Simba’s face on them. If you miss the mark with your audience - their needs, abilities and desires - you won’t cater to them, and nobody benefits from what you’ve made. Knowing your audience is the key to providing for them.

A good learner persona will:

  • Provide insight into the needs, abilities and desires of real-life learners
  • Provide consistency for the team while building the learning experience
  • Ensure that the learning experience is built with empathy and a genuine desire to enhance the knowledge or skills of the learner

A good learner persona can be an invaluable asset when creating a learning experience - especially when the experience is digital, meaning you may never meet any of the learners face-to-face. But notice I said a good learner persona - if your persona is not an accurate representation of your learners, and if you don’t keep them in mind as you build your experience, then they will do nothing to help you create a good learning experience - it may even be actively detrimental!

So how do you make sure you’re creating a learner persona who could easily fit into the crowd of your learners? Here are four simple steps to help make that happen.

#1: Gather Information:

It’s very hard to do anything without this step. This is where you figure out exactly what your audience looks like and begin your mission to gather as much intel about their learning experience needs as possible.

The best, if not the only, way to do this is to find people who could very well end up participating in your digital learning and ask them questions that will give you a better sense of who they are, what they need from this learning, and what would help them learn better. You’ll be able to discern things about their demographic without much trouble, but you can also ask questions like:

  • What is your typical day like?
  • What is your work environment like?
  • What kind of work frustrates you, and what kind of work do you enjoy?
  • What would motivate you to do a course like this?
  • How much do you know about this field already?

And so on - there may also be questions specific to the learning you are thinking of designing, so it’s important to figure out exactly what information you need and develop questions to address that before you start interviewing people. It’s worth mentioning that not all the information you gather needs to be directly related to the learning you want to create. Gathering more personal information, like a person’s overall career goals and lifestyle, can be useful as well. After all, no learning is made for its own sake - it is always created and used for a bigger overall purpose in someone’s life, and you want to be able to accommodate for that so that they can benefit as much as possible.

#2: Analyse and Summarise:

The next step is analysing all the information you’ve gathered and consolidating it into something more concrete.

Here, you take all of the bits and pieces you’ve collected from your interviewees and pick out the most consistent and important parts. Depending on how diverse your audience is likely to be, you may have to build more than one learner persona to account for the different types of people who might participate in the learning experience.

For example, if you were going to create an online course about, say, tropical fish care, you’d have to take into account that your learners will have different levels of prior experience. Some of your learners will have never owned a pet before, let alone something that requires as much care as a tropical fish! While others may already be in the fish husbandry business and simply want to enhance their skills by adding tropical fish care to their repertoire. This is a scenario in which building more than one learner persona would prove very helpful, since you will have to cater for a wide variety of learners.

If, on the other hand, you’re making a learning experience for a certain role in a certain company, and this role requires the employee to have certain skills and experience, you will probably need fewer learner personas, since your target audience is, by necessity, quite uniform.

#3: Giving them Life:

 Now this is where the magic happens. When it comes to actually building your learner personas, there are certain things you should include to make sure they are as realistic and relevant as possible. The details you include should not only be directly helpful for knowing what to include in your learning experience, but also give the persona a life of their own - make them more real. So apart from the obvious information like work position and years of experience in a certain field, it’s also helpful to include things like:

  • Age
  • Work location
  • Backstory (including interests and lifestyle)
  • Motivation to do the learning
  • Barriers to doing the learning
  • Learning environment
  • Name
  • Photo/image

Something else that may prove valuable when creating a learner persona is framing some of this information as though it was being said by the persona themselves. For example, instead of simply having a line that says:

Anita knows the importance of good animal husbandry and wants to hone her skills.’

you could have a quote from Anita (the persona) herself, saying:

Over the years, I've learned that pets play such an important role in our lives, and I want to learn more so that I can give them the best care I can.'

Doesn’t that quote sound so much more real than the first line? Don’t you feel like you can empathise with Anita much more easily after hearing what she has to say?

Doing this is a great exercise to improve empathy with the learner by really getting into their mindset.

#4: Keep them Alive:

The final step will be ongoing until you’ve finished creating your learning experience. Because it’s not enough to bring your personas to life, only for them to go into retirement as soon as you’ve started building the experience. You need to keep them alive in your minds as you create the learning.

When you talk about your personas, try to think of them as actual people rather than mere digital profiles. Talk about them like actual people. In your teams, ask questions like:

  • Do you think Anita knows what this means already, or should we explain it?
  • Do you think Anita would enjoy this sort of activity?
  • Do you think Anita would have the time to complete this quiz in one sitting?

Treat your personas like actual learners, keeping what they need, want, and can do in your mind, and you will find that you are actually catering for your real learners.

In summary, by gathering and analysing information you get from real people, people who could well be your future learners, you can create a persona who is real enough for you to get into their head. By teaming up with that persona, you’ll be able to create a learning experience that your learners understand, enjoy, and genuinely benefit from.

Beth Kaldas
1 February 2022 5 Min Read

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