For all the ways we’ve dreamed up to make the learning design and development processes more efficient and impactful over the years, there has always been one thing missing: a (real) focus on learners. Sure, we consider employee profiles and might even sneak in an audience analysis here and there, but the effort usually falls short of really inviting the learner’s voice into the room while our teams are feverishly conjuring up ways to build training for a new sales process or product cycle. Some of these methods and tools are great additions to our toolkit, such as SAM and design thinking, and I think the same is true of another idea that is catching wind lately: learner personas.

What is a Learner Persona?

A Learner Persona is, very simply, a fictional representation (or avatar) of a group of learners in your organization, based on observable data.

Fictional Representation. A persona is not a real person but is meant to represent the aggregate of the group you are targeting for learning. This could be based on unit, role, or level within the hierarchy.

Based on observable data. Equally important is that your fictional representations, or personas, must be based on actual, observable data. Stereotypes and gut feelings don’t work. You have to gather and crunch the numbers to make sure your personas are accurate.

Why should I use Learner Personas? 

Learner Personas are a fantastic way to humanize the design process. Once you have them in place and the team has bought into the concept, the focus shifts from the content being primary to the learner being primary. Specifically, using Learner Personas helps you:

Learn more about your audience. It’s very easy to settle in and assume we know all about our audience based on our years of experience with them. The truth is, unless we’ve undertaken a similar persona effort previously, we’ve likely only scratched the surface.

Design more targeted solutions. While we aren’t looking for individualization by using Learner Personas, they do grant us the ability to use more information to make decisions, which leads to solutions that feel much more personalized overall.

See the humans on the other end. By having a representation of a learner present during the design process, we stay grounded. It is much more difficult to let the content drive every design discussion when we are constantly reminded of the learner that will one day consume and give feedback on the end product.

How do I build Learner Personas?

While there are many ways to approach the creation of Learner Personas, and you’ll certainly discover the path that works for your organization through trial-and-error, I have a five-step process to use as a starting point.

1. Group Definition: While you might not know the exact boundaries of your personas quite yet, it is important to create some structure based on the immediate project you plan to use the persona(s) for, or maybe job roles overall if you are considering them for ongoing use. Keep an open mind as you move through the process and don’t be afraid to adjust your groups as needed.

2. Data Gathering: The second step is to gather as much data as possible about your groups, which will eventually become your personas. To start, you might engage your HRIS group for data regarding employee tenure, age, job role, etc. From there, decide what information is most important to your efforts. Are you building an onboarding program for new graduates in entry-level positions or an executive leadership program? This will drive the factors you focus on, and probably even the methods used to gather the data. Interviews and focus groups are invaluable, but if that’s not practical (due to a geographically-dispersed workforce, for example), surveys are also a valid tool.

3. Data Analysis: The third step is possibly the most difficult. Once you’ve gathered all this wonderful data, you’ll need to analyze it to find the patterns that will ‘reveal’ your persona. You might even discover that you have multiple distinct personas in a single group! The key here is to let the data show you what your personas look like. Don’t try to ‘find’ your expected persona in the data.

4. Persona Creation: In the fourth step, we finally get to put it all together and build the persona(s). The critical components that every solid Learner Persona should have are a name, a face, and a narrative. You need your persona(s) to be as real as possible so that your team can use them in as genuine a manner as possible. You should be able to refer to them by name and discuss how they will react to decisions the team makes.

5. Updating: Finally, you should be sure to regularly evaluate and update your personas as needed. A full cycle of data gathering is always necessary, but engage with your talent acquisition folks to see if they’ve either made a shift in recruiting targets or if they’ve noticed a difference in new hires.

How do I use a Learner Persona?

So you’ve gone through all the grueling work of agreeing on persona groups, gathering all the data, crunching the numbers, creating wonderfully narratives for your personas…. And now what? There are three things you can do now to maximize the use of your Learner Personas and bring the human element back to your development.

Make them visible. The very first thing you should do is make the personas visible to your team. Whether this is by printing them out and placing them on a common bulletin board or in a design conference room, everyone should be able to describe and discuss your personas as if they were another member on the team. Putting them in a public area is the best way to start this process. This should include a great ‘headshot’, key facts, and a solid narrative.

Include them in team meetings. It may be awkward at first, but regularly referring to your persona, by name, helps to normalize the effort. Just like a teammate that is out of the office, it’s good to consider aloud what your persona would have to say about decisions made during meetings. Try creating specific moments to bring your persona into the conversation ahead of time, and it’ll become more natural as you go.

Focus on the people. Remember that the persona is a representation of the real people in your organization and that they have goals, motivations, and preferences that we must keep in mind at all times. Even more important than our stakeholders, the people behind the personas must be heard in the design process.

RichCordreyRich Cordrey is an award-winning learning, performance, and technology professional who has spent the last 9+ years leading key growth initiatives, building high-performing teams, and developing strategies across multiple systems and workgroups. He is currently driving a transformation in digital content delivery and distribution at the largest automotive retailer in the U.S., AutoNation, leveraging a combination of existing document storage, traditional LMS platforms, and innovative mobile performance support applications. Rich is driven by his singular passion for finding ways for people to develop their personal and professional skills, resulting in increased performance and satisfaction. You can contact Rich via email () to connect regarding consulting, conference speaking, or just to chat.

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TrainingPros, founded in 1997, works closely with learning departments of large organizations to identify, attract, and support leading contract specialists for focused training and development engagements.