I’ve been hearing a lot about personas lately. Not the kind played by actors or assumed by authors, but the equally fictitious characters created by some L&D teams to better understand their target audiences. These L&D professionals are using a design thinking approach to generate composite characters that represent their learners and remind themselves that the new learning solution they are working on is not intended for the design team, but for others with different needs, motivations, and behaviors.

Personas allow L&D teams to ensure that the (usually) absent end-user is an integral part of the design and development phase of any new learning project, and more importantly, that each iteration of the solution is tested against the persona’s needs, not the project team’s preferences.  And yet, many L&D teams still unwittingly design and develop their online learning solutions with their L&D manager’s preferences top of mind.

Design must design for the right personas, which are their learners. And learning leaders must avoid embodying the following undesirable L&D management personas:

Do as I’ve Done Dorian

Do as I’ve Done Dorians prefer new training solutions to look, feel, and function like the courses they already know or developed themselves … 15 years ago. They remember how intimidating computer-based training was back then, and insist that every course have a robust “How to Use This Training” section and “Click Next to Continue” reminder on every page. Having expended great effort to usher eLearning into their workplaces, they now tend to be risk-averse and prefer tried-and-true tell me-show me-let me try instructional design and PowerPoint-ish click-through programming over more recent trends like microlearning, branching scenarios, or gamification.

When L&D teams design for Do as I’ve Done Dorians, they are in fact doing their target audiences a huge disfavor. Like all professions and industries, eLearning continues to evolve with new instructional design approaches, new courseware and development tools, and perhaps most importantly, much higher expectations from learners for the eLearning they want to take.

I’ll Get Us More Money Morgan

I’ll Get Us More Money Morgans are fearless when asking for bigger L&D project budgets and unruffled when scope creep begins to gallop. These L&D managers know that creating quality eLearning takes time and talent—both of which cost money—and that project schedules can slip due to circumstances beyond the team’s control. However, when securing larger budgets they sometimes lose sight of the fact that well-managed projects should not necessarily cost more or take longer. What’s more, they don’t always weigh the relative importance of a project to the organization’s strategic goals.

L&D teams like working for I’ll Get Us More Money Morgans because they know they don’t have to pinch pennies when creating quality learning solutions. But those same project teams can also overlook the fact that throwing more money at a project doesn’t always mean it will turn out better. Instead, they should design and develop to the project budget and schedule, not counting on a change request along the way.

Never Say No Norah

Never Say No Norahs have honed facilitation skills and get along with everyone, including the most demanding of stakeholders. These managers don’t get fussed about extra tweaks after approvals are signed. They know that it’s important to get things right—especially for large or high-profile training programs—and are happy to oblige subject matter experts and project team members who want to make “just one more minor change” to the eLearning solution.

L&D teams that rely on Never Say No Norahs to sign off on their new learning solutions should never circle the launch date in ink because these managers are unwilling to impose hard-and-fast project review cycles and schedules for fear of losing their colleagues’ support on other initiatives. The result is that employees who need training wait weeks or months while courses are fine-tuned to death.

We Gotta Trackit Travis

This L&D manager loves learning management systems, especially the reports they generate. In fact, We Gotta Trackit Travises want absolutely every interaction in each eLearning course tracked and reported. To be fair, they understand the importance of reporting and endeavor to provide upper management with ample evidence of the efficiency and effectiveness of their training programs. But sometimes they go too far, demanding that eLearning courses track every click a learner makes and that supervisors receive reports of how long it took each employee to read each screen (not to mention their responses to practice questions.)

When L&D teams design for We Gotta Trackit Travises, they risk placing more importance on counting interactions and questions than on whether the course contributed to improved workplace performance. Besides, when adult learners are told upfront that their managers will be reviewing the results of their eLearning, they will take the course for what it is—an exercise to promote rote recall rather than what it should be, which is practice and exploration in a safe environment.

I Know Better Iona

I Know Better Ionas love the design process and know it well, as they may have been a learning designer or developer before moving into a management role. However, they love designing courses so much that they often forget their role as the project authority. They revert to old habits when they impose “just a few” extra design features to eLearning courses that are ready for launch and simply require their sign off. Instead of reviewing the fully-developed course from a management perspective, they get caught up in font choices and color palettes—or worse, insist on completely new scenarios or content.

L&D teams who design for I Know Better Ionas are often frustrated by their managers’ micromanagement and lack of confidence in their expertise, not to mention their design decisions. When the often-subjective preferences of I Know Better Ionas replace the stated needs and preferences of the target audience, the course in question is doomed to miss the mark for both employees and management.

In conclusion

When L&D teams incorporate design thinking and create personas based on learners, they keep their goals, motivations, and pain points top of mind. But when they unwittingly substitute learners’ personas with those of the L&D managers who sign off on the projects, they lose sight of who they are designing for, and why they are creating eLearning in the first place.

We know that personas play an important role in marketing. Personas are equally important in L&D. Designers should design for learners’ personas, while L&D leaders should avoid embodying undesirable management personas.