Meet Trixie. She’s 25 years old and started her first professional job about a year ago. She uses a smartphone for texting and tweeting, but also for shopping, banking, and dating (by the way, she’s single). Trixie holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from a liberal arts college and she’ll probably go back to get her master’s, maybe an MBA, but right now she’s focusing on her position as a market analyst (her mentor speaks highly of her work ethic but mentioned that her understanding of marketing is fairly rudimentary at this point) and on the non-profit she and a college friend started to provide creative spaces to under-resourced communities.

Oh, one more thing: Trixie’s not a real person.

What’s a “persona”?

Or rather, Trixie is many, many people. She’s a combination of their educational backgrounds, position in the organization, and worldviews. Trixie is the primary learner persona for a series of marketing modules for a manufacturer with a global presence. They made the decision to start their marketing training in North America and will expand and adapt the training for marketers worldwide later. At that time, Trixie will fade into the background and Jens will get all the attention.

Jens isn’t real either, but the instructional designer on the project could describe him so well you would be convinced Jens and the ID were friends. That’s because the ID and the project sponsors spent almost half a day discussing typical learners for the upcoming marketing modules. They assigned ages, genders, career goals, technology comfort-levels, educational backgrounds, and attitudes toward eLearning. They even attributed outside interests and family and social relationships. So now the ID knows Trixie and Jens (and Bill and Sonal) well enough to suggest their favorite restaurants and order for them.

Why create personas?

And that’s the value of learner personas—they are people. The mantra of all IDs is “design for the learner,” not “design for the demographic statistics.” Putting a name and face (well, almost) to the stats makes it much easier to understand what the learners will really need. At every decision point, the instructional designer can ask herself, “What does Trixie need?” or “What does Trixie want?” and the answer will probably be pretty obvious.

Developing learner personas can be time-consuming but everyone involved usually enjoys the process. There will likely be some debate and questioning but most project sponsors get a kick out of inventing people. It’s helpful to start the process with some explanations and caveats.

Three important details

One, clear up the issue of stereotypes and generalizations. Some feel uncomfortable with the process because it can feel like stereotyping, that is assuming all members of a group will have the same traits. Comments like “Not all millennials show up to work late” or “I know many retail clerks who are ambitious” indicate that some in the group might misunderstand the process. Acknowledge that this process relies on generalizations. In fact, this process does not work without generalizations. And explain that generalizations are inferences based on careful observation and personal experiences. Where stereotypes are a list of traits assigned to all members of a group, generalizations are descriptions of a group based on its members.

At this point, some may argue that generalizations can quickly turn into stereotypes (which they can) and that oversimplified generalizations won’t lead to learner personas that are useful for instructional design. But these aren’t oversimplified generalizations, which leads to . . .

Two, you can have more than one learner persona. You should have more than one persona. So, when someone says that a particular description doesn’t apply to everyone, you can say “Great! We’ll make a learner persona for the others next.” We all recognize that just because people might have the same job description doesn’t mean they all fit the same learner persona. You might end up creating two, three, or four personas. As you develop the personas, determine how many learners each one represents. If a persona typifies less than 10 percent of the learners, it’s probably not necessary to devote time fleshing that persona out, because …

Three, in the end, the group will have to come to a consensus about who the primary learner is. Choosing isn’t based strictly on numbers, but it’s unlikely that a small percentage of outliers will become the primary learner. For example, Trixie represents about 80 percent of the company’s North American learners. The remaining 20 percent are typically a little older, have been with the company longer than Trixie, and are shifting from non-marketing to marketing roles. The project sponsors decided to choose Trixie as their primary learner persona partly because she represented such a large number. But they also decided that in meeting Trixie’s needs for marketing fundamentals, the courses would also meet the most important needs of the other 20 percent. And some of the other content that Trixie needs—developing customer relationships, cross-functional communications—might be a little redundant for more experienced learners but won’t detract from their learning experiences. Who knows? It might even be a valuable refresher.

In other instances, the numbers have very little to do with choosing the primary persona. This was the case with Jens. He represents only about a third of the company’s European workers, but they selected him anyway. Jens exemplifies the population that the organization inherited when it acquired several smaller companies about a decade ago. Jens is loyal to his products and has a valuable customer network but he’s somewhat resistant to the marketing ideas the company has adopted in the last couple years. Jens is serving as the primary learner for the next phase of training development because he’s likely to be a difficult learner to reach. If the training is designed to appeal to even the most reluctant learners, the courses will almost certainly appeal to enthusiastic learners, so the ID can focus on Jens knowing that the other learners will be just fine.

All the stakeholders benefit from personas

Learner personas aren’t just valuable for instructional designers, though. They’re useful touchstones for all stakeholders, even (or maybe especially) the project sponsors. If a project’s scope begins to creep, you can bring it back by asking whether the additions will help Trixie. Or, midway through the project, you might be struck by an inspiration and you can propose changes based on Trixie’s needs. Best of all, millions of learners benefit from the well-designed training that learner personas make possible.

Want more?

At DevLearn 2015 Conference & Expo, Allison Anderson will present Personas and the Learning Ecosystem (Session 811, Friday, October 2, at 10:00 AM). This session examines the importance of evaluating business goals, the technical environment, and the learner experience. You will learn how to use real-world examples of building data-based learner personas and how personas can be used to build a better vision, create a better road map, and make better decisions for both business impact and the learner experience. Key points:

  • Why it’s important to understand the learner’s experience
  • What a good persona looks like
  • How we build personas
  • How we use personas to make decisions