5 Steps To Boost The Use Of Learner Personas To Their Full Capacity

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Start With A Reality Check

Personas are widely used in UX design to categorize customers and inform product decisions. In the past years, more and more educators started to apply a similar approach to course development and invest considerable time and effort into creating learner personas. Yet too often the resulting persona profiles are left forgotten or underused. To assess your team’s case, answer the following questions:

  • How many learner personas do you have?
  • Off the top of your head, do you remember the names of all these personas, their background, goals, needs, and frustrations?
  • In the past month, how often did you refer to learner personas in your individual work?
  • In the past month, how often were the personas discussed in your team meetings?

The ideal answer to the last two questions is “daily.” When access to actual students is limited, learner personas are what allow us to run our ed products through a reality check. Despite this, personas usage rarely goes beyond the initial needs finding stage. We’re more likely to discuss with our colleagues what happens to a character of a new Netflix show than how our decisions affect students and their experiences. In this article, we will talk about steps that help to increase the use of learner personas in later stages of a course development cycle, while both creating a learning journey and assessing its quality.

Step 1. Make Learner Personas Memorable

Your team may have the most carefully crafted set of learner personas, yet everyone can have a hard time remembering them. And if one cannot recall something on the spot, it’s very unlikely that this information will be used daily.

Solution? Make it personal. Apply the storytelling approach to add meat to the personas that you have, or find similar characters among people that your team already knows. Those characters can be real human beings or protagonists from books and movies. TV series are especially helpful as you can pick up a group of characters linked to each other, which makes it easier to feel connected to them.

Emotions are important. It’s difficult to ignore learners and their needs if you get attached and start caring about them as much as your real friends.

Here is a starter list of TV series that your team may consider:

  • Workplace: Office, ER, Mad Men
  • Adult learners: Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory
  • HigherEd: Pitch Perfect, Dear White People
  • High school: Glee, Gossip Girl, Beverly Hills 90210, 13 Reasons Why
  • K-12: Stranger Things, Blossom, Sex Education, South Park
  • Family: Full House, Umbrella Academy

Don’t forget about learners whose background or current situation makes studying extra challenging. Get inspiration from these movies’ protagonists.

  • Learning differences: Forrest Gump, I Am Sam, Little Man Tate
  • Physical disabilities: Avatar, Finding Nemo, Blindsight
  • Aging: The Golden Girls, Up!
  • Mental health: The Skeleton Twins, The Hours, Winnie the Pooh
  • Single parenting: Erin Brokovich, The Single Moms Club, Gifted
  • Kids at risk: Florida Project, Matilda, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
  • Abusive environment: Big Little Lies, Room
  • Discrimination: Hidden Figures, On the Basis of Sex

Step 2. Add Even More Emotion

We all know from experience that students approach learning differently, demonstrate different levels of commitment, and reach different results. This variability can be observed not only between students, it’s natural for every single individual. Today a learner may be fully focused on training, but tomorrow they barely pay attention to it.

Yet while designing a new course, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking only about the “perfect” version of your student: enthusiastic and as devoted to the learning experience as you are.

To overcome it, try to imagine how the same person will perceive learning when they are tired, frustrated, hungry, angry, consumed by anxiety, distracted by background noises, etc. Turn this exercise into a team habit by adding a “common emotional states” section to the personas profiles. Ideally, create a story about feelings that occupy each persona’s mind and explain how they may affect learning: “Kevin McCallister is a smart kid but he struggles to navigate relationships with his four siblings, especially with his bully brother Buzz. As a result, Kevin often doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on in the classroom and overreacts to other’s feedback.”

Step 3. Radicalize Your Learner Personas

Intuitively, we tend to think about a typical student when creating learner personas. There is a problem with this approach: an average person is not very helpful when it comes to shooting holes in your products. Unless you really frustrate them, people are generally nice. After giving your course 5 stars, they may politely point out a weak spot or two, but that’s it. With average-person feedback, it may take weeks to find all flaws and realize that the 5-star rating actually means that your course is satisfying, not outstanding.

If you plan to use personas for quality assurance, wearing an average-student hat may trick you into not-so-critical review mode. But what happens if you impersonate Steve Jobs, Sheldon Cooper, or Phil Connors? These folks are known for providing brutally honest feedback. Adding one of them to your personas set (or reproducing their character traits in an existing persona) may help your team to have more candid conversations about the quality of your products.

Step 4. Don’t Stick To Persona Profiles Too Much

Having a single-slide persona profile helps to bring the course team to the same page. But some people may feel that deviating from that formal description is forbidden. If our learner is defined as a young professional with a bachelor’s degree, does it mean that we are not designing for a college drop-out? Discuss with the team what persona characteristics are invariable and which represent a range of learner experiences.

Step 5. Build A Team Habit To Use Learner Personas

None of the previous steps make sense unless your team starts using personas on a regular basis. Don’t expect quick results; it may take months before conversations about learners become a natural part of your teamwork. Here are several tactics worth trying:

  • Help your colleagues memorize learner personas
    Add a slide about them (name, visual, key characteristics, link to the full profile) to every deck that you prepare for team gatherings. Refer to this slide at least once during a meeting.
  • Model how to use learner personas
    In every interaction with the team, ask a question from a learner’s point of view. For example: “If Morty Smith and Hermione Granger were in this room, what would they say about our initiative?” You can apply this question to every decision, however big (introduce a new product feature, pivot to a completely different model) or small (add a new activity to a lesson) it is.
  • Celebrate the colleagues who follow your lead
    Make an effort to notice all occasions when your teammates try to wear a learner’s hat—and thank them for that.
  • Normalize the use of personas
    For instance, add to all product development iterations a step for assessing the change from the learner’s perspective. During the quality assurance process, have a formal requirement to review the whole learning journey with each persona’s frame of mind.

Finally, remember that the adoption of personas cannot replace interactions with actual students. If you want to build a truly learner-centered experience, you need to have a feedback loop that includes people who use your product. The good news is that the habit to apply learner personas also makes you better tuned to insights that come from real users. So why not give it a try?

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