ammer, nails, screwdriver, tape… In every toolbox, there are tools that a builder wouldn’t be caught dead without.
Why? Because they are essential for getting the job done.
Learner personas are an essential tool that every learning creator should have in their learning toolbox.
Personas are used across many departments in knowledge-based companies. Customer or client personas are a must-have for teams like marketing, sales and product development.
And they’re just as important for learning designers and training creators.
What is a learner persona?
A learner persona is a fictional profile that describes the type of person your training is designed for.
It contains a mix of demographic, role and personality information, such as age, gender, character traits and job pain points and goals.
Most importantly, learner personas also contain information about the learner’s attitude towards training. This might look like quotes and statements about their preferences, previous experiences and the amount of time they have available to spend in training.
It’s important for these details to be fictional. They should not be drawn from a real person in your organisation. Instead, use details from a mix of people as inspiration to create an archetype.
You can see an example of a learner persona below.
Why is it important to write learning personas?
Learning personas are important because they help you to make learning for the learner. Not for the manager, not the C-suite and not the fuzzy impression your team might currently have.
Learner personas help shift the design process away from what seems to best suit the business to a more learner-centered approach and what will best fit the learner. And when the learning is learner focused, the outcomes are far more effective for everyone, including the wider organisation.
Expert Learning Designer at Savv-e, Katherine Willis, confirms this. “The highest priority goal for any learning designer is to create learning interventions that result in ‘learning’. You’re highly more likely to achieve that goal when you examine and consider the learner's needs, concerns and desires. When you understand these things, your content, language, activities, questions are all oriented to meet those needs and take into account those concerns.”
The process of developing personas also helps to clarify many important details that may influence how you design your courses. For example,
- Knowing the reading level of your learners may influence the language you use.
- Identifying the goals, wants and needs of your learners allows you to position your training as a resource that will help them to meet their goals and solve their problems.
- Understanding how your learners work in their roles day-to-day may influence the length of your courses.
- Recognising the embedded attitudes towards training in your organisation may influence how hard you work to communicate the value of the training.
Personas can also help your team to move past unhelpful assumptions.
“I see a lot of organisations looking to manage the gap between the digitally literate and not so savvy,” Willis shares. “With personas, you can dig deeper than that gap to discover “the why”, the traits that make them the way they are and focus on that in the instructional design. Good eLearning should encompass UX design and accessibility so that the medium itself is user friendly, and the audience can focus on the content.”
Ultimately, learner personas help you to create more engaging, relevant, targeted content, eliminate anything irrelevant or unnecessary and make sure the learning achieves the right outcomes.
What is the ideal number of learning personas?
The ideal number of learning personas is between 1 and 4, depending on the size of your organisation and project.
If your organisation is small (200 or less employers), you may find that your teams have many commonalities that can be easily represented in just one or two personas.
Similarly, if your project consists of a small number of courses with a small audience, just one or two personas can be sufficient and appropriate.
However, if you are designing learning for a large organisation or audience, with a diverse audience, you may need three, four or even five personas to best capture your learners needs.
Willis also recommends being guided by your group. “As you research your audience, you’ll find some common characteristics. These determine the number of personas you need. Unless you’re willing to highly customise your learning experiences, it would be difficult to write for more than six personas at once. We commonly see three to four.”
How to write a learning persona
There are three main steps to creating a learning persona.
Gather your information. The best learner personas are built upon real, accurate demographic data.
Begin with anonymised breakdowns on points such as:
- Level of education
- Where they live
You may need to contact HR representatives in your organisation to get this information, or even assemble some of it yourself.
From there, you can begin to delve into information around pain points, needs, and attitudes. The best way to gather this is first hand. Depending on your time and resources, you could
- Identify some learners who are representative of your personas and interview them first hand
- Send out a survey to a wider audience
- Spend time shadowing individuals or teams
- Ask team leaders about their teams
Gathering this data first-hand allows you to use statements and quotes that give your persona much needed depth and specificity.
Once you have collected your data, look for patterns, such as common behaviours, pain points and responsibilities, and begin to group them into profiles.
Find a template that works for you and add your findings. Templates are a great place to start for your first few personas. Templates can help you to identify important information to gather.
You can also put together your own template using other templates as information.
With the right template, you can use the information you gathered in
Each persona should be notably different to any other personas you develop. If you find that your personas overlap, it may be worth reducing the number of personas you have to avoid overcomplicating or cluttering the picture.
Put your personas where everyone can find them. There’s not much point in creating learning personas if they’re never used, and sadly, this happens all too often.
Try printing your learner personas out and sticking them to a prominent wall in your office. This acts as a visual reminder of who you’re working for - the learner!
It also makes the personas quick and easy to refer back to throughout the design and development of your courses. As you create your training, continue to ask questions like:
- Does this help my learner to meet their goals?
- Does this ease my learner’s pain points?
- Does my learner have the right knowledge to understand and complete this training?
With clear personas, these questions should be easy to answer, assisting you to keep your training on track to meet your outcomes.
Tips for writing learning personas
When writing your learner personas, the most important aspects to prioritise are, “empathy and authenticity. This is the first stage of any Design Thinking process,” Willis shares. “It’s okay to make a few assumptions about your group, provided they’re validated through working groups or interviews. Alternatively, you can get clinically correct information out of extensive surveying and analysis, but unless you talk to the audience, you may miss some crucial human aspect of their make-up.”
She particularly warns against stereotyping, accidental or otherwise. “The result is that people feel patronised and unseen. Make sure you have at least one opportunity to connect on a human level with your persona groups to gain that empathetic insight.”
A few more tips to keep in mind:
- Each persona should have a maximum of three or four goals that describe what the persona wants to get out of this learning.
- Don't focus too much on a persona’s biography. Personal details can be fun, but too many can get in the way. To avoid this problem, focus first on the behavior patterns, goals, environment, and attitudes of the persona—the information that’s critical for design—then add a few personality details to bring the profile to life.
- Build empathy for your persona. Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand what and how they think and feel.
- Watch that stereotypes and social judgments don’t slip into your personas as these can create inaccurate and unrealistic profiles that defeat the purpose. You may even choose to leave out names, genders or racial backgrounds if you think they may create unconscious bias.
- Tweak your personas until they feel real and then put them to the test. Think about how each persona would respond in various situations. Compare that to the group it represents. Make additional changes until each persona resonates with you and your team.
Learner personas are an essential tool in the learning toolbox of training creators. With well-developed and well-rounded personas, your team can do a far better job of keeping meeting your learning outcomes and the needs of your learners. Keep them close by and turn them into your team’s best friends.
Lastly, “It doesn’t need to be scary!" says Willis, "A lot of people baulk at writing personas because they think they have to write and send surveys to their ‘over-surveyed’ people. But it’s not a forensic analysis. Spend a little time with your people, plan out your questions and you can come up with a great set of personas.”