This article takes you on a deep dive into the what and the why of learner personas. It also elaborates on how to obtain the information needed for creating those personas.

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There is a lot of talk lately about learner personas, and how defining them can help L&D tailor learning programs suited to their audience, as well as in marketing these programs to said audience.

I jumped into the fray as well a while ago, with my thoughts on adapting learner personas from marketing to L&D, and how to utilize them for both marketing and learning design once they are defined.

However, I felt the need to dive into learner persona definition itself, and chalk out the characteristics that make them most useful for the above purposes. So, here you go.

By now, you already know that personas are hypothetical learners that you invent to better understand their motivations and frustrations, so you can figure out the best way to get their attention and to teach them. This includes all the information you need to know about your ideal learner so you can tailor your design to their needs.

There’s plenty of material available out there on defining learner personas, what to include and so on. In fact, there are even templates available that you can simply download and fill up to build your learner personas.

So why one more article, you ask?

Great question. As far as I’ve seen, none of the available literature delves into the what, the why and the how, to help you create personas that you can actually use in your work to deliver targeted learning solutions.

And here’s the thing about templates. Unless you really understand learner personas deeply, and how they connect with your marketing and learning strategies, using a template is not going to help you create personas that are useful. That’s because your business is different, your learners are different, and your circumstances are specific to your organization, so basically you will need to think about what it is that works for your particular requirement. At best, you can take a template as a starting point and tweak it as you go, rather than use it as an outline to be just filled with information.

So let’s get into it, shall we?

So first, here’s what a learner persona should include, and the why. You probably already know some of it, but please bear with me and give it a read.

The What and The Why

1. Goals and objectives:

  • What to include: This involves answering questions such as… what makes them tick? What makes them get up and come to work in the morning? What keeps them awake at night? The answer could be something aspirational, like “I want to create a positive impact on my team, my organization and my community”, or something mundane, such as “I want to get my salary at the end of the month so I can feed my family”.
  • Why include this information: Understanding your learners’ goals and motivations is key to designing solutions that grab their attention and move them towards the desired skills and behavior.

2. Challenges, concerns and pain points:

  • What to include: What holds your learners back from logging in to the LMS, or taking the course? What prevents them from succeeding in the course? And what stops them from adopting the desired behaviors? Are they short on time, struggling with the content, or just not super motivated?
  • Why include this information: Knowing what obstacles they face and the objections they have towards learning and changing their approach will help you find ways to help them overcome them. This, perhaps, is the most important information you need, and the one that you will probably leverage the most in your marketing and learning.

3. Learning habits and context:

  • What: Are your learners desk-bound or on-the-go? When are they most likely to learn in the span of a day or a week. What browser / device do they use most commonly? Is there a pattern, or is it random?
  • Why: These are all questions that will help you determine how, and in what forms, to serve up your campaigns and your learning content.

4. Communication channels used:

  • What: Which communication channels do they frequent most of the time? Think about all the internal (e-mail, slack, and the like) as well as external (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) channels that are available. Don’t forget to look at the offline channels as well. Is there a lounge in a physical office where employees hang out for a coffee and chat? Do people crowd around in the cafeteria for impromptu conversations? Where do the ‘watercooler’ exchanges typically happen?
  • Why: You want to reach learners where they are, don’t you? This information is critical to understanding where they mostly hang out, and deliver your messaging in a targeted manner.

5. Interests and pastimes:

  • What: Where do they spend their time when they’re not working? What are their weekends and holidays filled with?
  • Why: While this information may not directly correlate with an action you would take in your marketing campaign or learning design, it can give you lots of insight into what appeals to your learner.

6. Quirks, superpowers and shortcomings:

  • What: Each individual is unique in some way or the other. What are the unique characteristics of your persona, and what changes them from being a fictional entity and makes them into almost a real person?
  • Why: This again may not be something that you actually use in your material, but have you ever wondered why people fall in love with cartoon characters and superheroes? Popeye, anyone? Why would someone love a fictional entity who’s one-eyed and loves spinach? It’s because the creators of Popeye have taken the time to build out the character, warts and all, and make him humanlike. Well, more on this later.

7. Demographic information:

  • What: This is all the basic stuff like age, gender, education level, department, and tenure.
  • Why: These details might seem unimportant compared to the others, but I would encourage you to add them. They might come in handy in some cases. If nothing, they’re helpful to make your personas more realistic, and therefore, easier to identify with.

8. Others:

Now that we’ve covered the key pieces of information you want to include for each persona, think what else can make them more relatable. I would say adding a picture (or maybe a few) would help.

There could be other unique characteristics that would work specifically for your organization. For example, if your organizational culture encourages diversity of any kind, include those details in your personas as well. As covered before, the idea is to make them as humanlike and relatable as possible, so you can design your solutions for these “people” and not “personas”.

The How

We’ve talked about the what and the why. Now comes the how. By this, I mean the sources you would be using to obtain information for building your personas.

Well, your first source would be the demographic information available in your organization’s systems already. Designation, department, age, tenure. For instance, your LMS. Your HR platform. Wherever. This is probably the easiest information to obtain. Get that information down, and distill it into several large buckets as you see fit.

The next thing you want to address are the goals and objectives of your audience. Where might you get this information from? Surveys, focus groups, interviews, are all good sources.

Then come the challenges and barriers to learning. You may not have this information for individual learners, but you don’t need that.

This is basically one of the staple questions that we ask during project discovery meetings, where we dig around to find out all the things that are preventing people from learning and from adopting the necessary behavior. Sources of this information, again, could include surveys, interviews with the employees themselves, and managers of the employees.

In fact, one short but comprehensive survey should suffice to elicit all the information you need to build you personas. Same goes for interviews and focus groups. Avoid sending multiple questionnaires and requests for meetings. Remember to word your survey request as a tool to help you better support them in their professional journey.

Your learners aren’t taking your courses because they are short of time, or don’t think the learning that you put out is valuable enough. You don’t want to give them the same experience in your information collection exercise too.

Information about learning habits and context can be obtained possibly from your LMS. In other cases, your IT department may be able to supply you with this information.

Similarly, data about communication channels might be available with IT. If not, it’s a question of making a list of channels and then looking into each channel to see the level of engagement there.

For interests and favorite pastimes, you might need to go sleuthing a little bit. Poke around in your communication channels. How many people are populating each channel? How active are the conversations in each. What are they talking about in each? Work-related discussions or personal stuff? And specifically, what are they talking about when they refer to their weekends and holidays. As with the others, you don’t need to get too specific about who’s doing what. All you need is an idea of the distribution between the channels, as well as what people are talking about.

Quirks, superpowers and shortcomings are things that you might need to make up on your own. And that’s okay, considering that their primary purpose is to induce a bit more empathy for the persona.

Once you have all your basic pieces of information, you will need to assemble and organize them into several large buckets. A common piece of advice at this point is to say that you can arrange your personas by either their department or seniority, or by any other parameter. And that you need to create around 3-4 personas.

But I find it most useful to arrange personas by their challenges and barriers to learning, as well as their goals and objectives. Because you see, when it comes to leveraging these personas for your marketing and learning design activities, these are the most important factors that come into play.

Therefore, my advice is to not limit yourself to a certain number of personas. Though it’s unlikely that you might find more than 3-4 challenges or barriers to learning, it’s a good idea to keep yourself open to creating as many personas as there are challenges.

Now that we’ve talked about what to include and where to get information from for building our learner personas, let’s rewind a little bit and relook at why we create them in the first place.

Empathy, right?

We create learner personas with real and embellished information, so that it would help us relate to them better. Which in turn will help us design solutions that are apt for them.

The general advice here is that a persona should be like a CV of a person.

Tell me. How many times have you looked at a CV and been able to really empathize with that person?

That’s because a CV happens to be impersonal. Even though the persona might be described as a single parent struggling with a million demands on their time and energy, and is a go-getter who doesn’t take no for an answer.

Here’s where you should put your storytelling skills to use.

Remember we talked about Popeye? A one-eyed sailor who likes spinach. Sounds pretty mundane right? But people love him. That’s the power of storytelling.

Don’t like Popeye? Think of your favorite superhero or cartoon character. Why do you love that character? Again, storytelling.

Once you create the outline of your persona with all the necessary characteristics, try writing a mini biography about the persona. It could something on the lines of “a day in the life of…”, or any story that makes your persona come to life. It doesn’t have to be long or complicated. A simple story, even a well-written one-pager can make all the difference between an impersonal CV and a person that you root for.

The What Next

In case you haven’t done so already, check out this post on how to use each of these elements in your marketing and learning efforts.

Written by Srividya Kumar, Co-Founder @ Learnnovators

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