If someone offered you a tool that could increase learner engagement and make your eLearning more relevant, would you use it?

Consider using learner personas. According to Lacey Jennings, a service delivery leader at Xerox Learning Services, using personas “gives anyone who’s working on [the eLearning] deeper insight into what is motivating the learners.”

Using personas enables developers to present a compelling message to learners, said Sarah Thompson, marketing and communications efficacy improvement manager at Pearson. That message is: “We’re not telling you what you need to learn; you’re finding what you need to learn—and it’s relevant to you.”

A persona is an archetype: a composite learner who encapsulates the traits, preferences, level of experience, and interests that are representative of a slice of the actual learner population. The persona puts a face, albeit fictitious, on what would otherwise be an abstraction, giving eLearning designers and developers a more human target. Considering the persona’s needs helps a development team hone the eLearning—anything from the overarching learning goals to the finer points of how learners will navigate through a module.

A persona is “such a unique way to look at the learner,” Thompson said. “Instead of saying, ‘You need this information,’ we’re saying, ‘What do you do? What’s involved in your role? What are your challenges in your role?’ And then we say, ‘OK, here’s the learning that helps you decrease the challenges or that risk.’”

Using personas can align designers, developers, and other stakeholders around clearer goals by creating a shared understanding of who will use the eLearning, Jennings said. While it does not change the steps in the development process, “what it does give you is a lot more insight into the behaviors of your learners so that, hopefully, what you’re designing can be more impactful,” she said.

It can also streamline an iterative development process and simplify maintenance. “Doing it better the first time will reduce the number of iterations and likely ensure that developers have fewer changes in the maintenance cycle,” Thompson said.

Instructional designers conduct extensive audience analysis when creating personas, said Megan Torrance, CEO of TorranceLearning. “Personas help in personalizing that research into a few key archetypes and give instructional designers a shortcut for referring to a set of needs,” Torrance said. “For example, ‘Catherine, as an experienced team member, needs quick reference material for incorporating a new process into her routine work, while Nayan is a newer employee for whom we’ll need to connect all the dots from this new process to the other work tasks he’s learning about. He needs big-picture structure and lots of practice.’ By building out the human characteristics of each persona, we as instructional designers can stay connected to the learners we’re supporting throughout the project.

When creating personas, the project team tries to identify behavior patterns common among targeted learners so that they can design and develop the eLearning in a way that will work for those learners. It can (and should) capture things like the typical learner’s workflow and how—and where—learners spend their time. Does the learner need mobile-friendly eLearning? Quickly searchable stores of information? Can the learner focus on three-minute videos? What about 10-minute videos? How comfortable is the learner with tablets or smartphone apps?

The emphasis is not on individuals’ personal characteristics, though using personas moves the team to a deeper understanding of the learners themselves. “It’s a composite of a group of individuals,” Jennings said; it gives developers information on learners’ personal and professional goals, what motivates them, and what their “pain points” or needs are.

Jennings and Thompson describe use of personas as “next-generation needs analysis”—expanding the developers’ focus. One level of needs analysis looks at what an organization needs learners to get out of training; but personas can home in on the motivations and needs of specific groups that have different levels of background knowledge and different professional goals.  

Torrance said her agile project teams focus on a single persona as the primary one for a project; this might be the persona that represents the largest share of learners, or it might be the persona that represents a priority particular to the situation.

But Thompson said it would be very unusual for her teams to use a single persona. “We really want to look at multiple personas; we never want to restrict it to a single one,” she said. “We’re doing our due diligence by crafting or sculpting multiple personas.”

Thompson provided the example of eLearning that trains learners on a new product. Some of the learners might be account executives and sales personnel, she said. “Their goals might be related to growing a product line or expansion or just additional sales or new markets. Their motivation might be a quarterly quota; they might be responsible for a particular product, and their motivation is around enhancing that product or enhancing the use of that product,” Thompson said. “And their pain points are crafting the right value proposition to share with the right customers, pitching [the product] the right way, or getting that ‘elevator pitch’ down.”

On the other hand: “A product manager has a totally different set of motivations,” she said. “Theirs is improving the product and improving the usage; and maybe they want to up the numbers—their goals may be related to adoption. That’s totally different from the sales folks. They don’t need to craft the pitch or have an elevator speech ready. They are really looking at ‘How do we fine-tune the product? How do we make sure the customers are using the product?’”

The core content of the eLearning—information about the product features—is relevant to all the learners, Thompson said. “Then there’s little nuggets that have to be layered on top that address the personas.” For the sales-focused persona, those “layers” will be different than for the product-manager persona. 

Essentially, a persona is a hook that draws in different learners, Thompson said. For sales-focused learners, the message is, “We want to support you in sharing how those product features are pitched to your customers,” Thompson said. “It’s not ‘We think you need to know this,’ but ‘We can solve your problem by providing this solution.’”

“If we say, ‘Our learning helps you with your pain points,’ then we are answering their problem. If we twist it that way, it’s a totally different view than saying, ‘We think you need to learn about these product features,’” she said. “It’s a very different suite of hooks; it basically ensures that your learning becomes far more useful because you’re really targeting exactly what those personas need.”

Different use cases determine the number and needs of the personas. “Personas are a deeper dive into the segmentation within a use case, and personas can be applied to different use cases,” Jennings said.

Thompson added, “Optimally, use cases should reflect process, whereas personas should reveal more about the role you are serving. So personas should inform the use cases and help you address the user needs even better.”

Use cases that Jennings encounters frequently include leadership development, onboarding, and recruiting. For leadership development, her team might create personas for an incumbent manager, a manager who is new to the role, and a new hire into a management position, Jennings said. Each of these personas would represent a critical segment of the learner population, and each would have different needs, background, and basic knowledge. The personas would enable designers and developers to target the eLearning to each group’s needs.

Learn more!

To learn more about what personas mean for developers and designers, and how to use them, attend the session that Jennings and Thompson are presenting at DevLearn 2016, Designing Learner Personas: The New Needs Analysis, on November 18.

Torrance is also presenting at DevLearn: Agile Project Management for eLearning on November 16 and Making Future-focused Platform Decisions with the xAPI on November 17.

DevLearn 2016 will be held November 16 – 18 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada.