Post by Gwen Nguyen, Advisor, Learning and Teaching
When I first returned to my home country, Vietnam, after finishing a master’s program in applied linguistics in early 2009, I was invited to work as an e-learning designer at an international language academy. I eagerly accepted the invitation, but when I presented a sample online lesson in front of a committee, I failed. Not because I didn’t know how to design a lesson; the committee members said although I had many creative activities, I also had many expectations for potential learners. I can still hear them say, “You don’t know your learners.”
In another case, in one of my courses in the doctoral program in education, I was asked, “What do you do for a living?” At that point I simply answered, “I teach English.” My professor said, “You don’t just teach. You teach students English.” True. We don’t just teach or design. We teach and design learning experiences with and for others. We teach and design for care.
In this third post in our Digital Pedagogy Toolbox blog series, which highlights interactive technologies and pedagogies, I discuss the topic of building learner personas, one of the most common human-centred design skills in the world of e-learning. Starting with what personas are in teaching and learning, I discuss why and how we can build learner personas as the first step in designing for care, then finish with a few tips on how you can leverage personas to enhance teaching and learning programs.
What Are Personas?
Personas — lifelike characters driven by potential and real users’ goals, abilities, attitudes, and experiences when approaching a product — had been used extensively for decades in user experience research, web development, and marketing before they gained attention in the field of education (Huprich, 2019). The word persona originates from Greek, meaning mask (Nielsen, 2013). Constructing personas is the process of designers putting on masks as users so they can understand the users and their needs in the development of new products (Baaki, Maddrell, & Stauffer, 2017).
You might say, “So a persona isn’t a real person.” You’re right! Personas have some fictional details, such as names and background information. However, they’re not just descriptive representations of different individuals. Personas are built to represent discursive patterns of real learners’ behaviour and motivations (Huynh, Madsen, McKagan, & Sayre, 2021). Who are they? What are they usually into? What kinds of activities and topics motivate them? Do they use technology? What are their common tools? What are their learning goals?
Why Use Personas?
As personas represent and communicate learners’ motivations and behaviours throughout the design process, building personas is a powerful tool to help designers with making decisions about what kind of learning design to build, content to cover, and messages that resonate with learners. In other words, crafting personas supports designers to gain insights into learners and develop innovative and transformative experiences for them (Baaki, Maddrell, & Stauffer, 2017)
In human-centred design, building personas is not only a preliminary or warm-up step. It is also an ongoing activity that enables designers to always centre the needs of learners and to engage with and think about the learner’s perspective with evidence-based, engaging, and person-like data (van Rooij, 2012). When designers develop instruction or learning experiences with a thorough understanding of learners and careful analysis of how different contexts affect their states, this is the first step in teaching and designing with empathy or designing for care (Huynh, Madsen, McKagan, & Sayre, 2021).
More important, while other user research or data analysis approaches might contain a high risk of exposing identities when presenting or reporting individuals’ rich details to stakeholders, constructing personas, as creating masks, presents a different path that shows some relatable experience but is highly safe and ethical in protecting learners’ identities (Huynh, Madsen, McKagan, & Sayre, 2021).
Personas provide a common language and context designers and other project participants can draw on when developing instruction. In this sense personas may function as a communication method that helps connect all team members involved in the design process. Building personas together also allows team members to openly communicate and make explicit their assumptions regarding potential learners so they can help each other with stereotypes and building better designs (Nielsen, 2013).
Building Personas as Designing for Care
There are different ways of developing personas in the design process. I developed a five-step framework of building personas to practice empathy in design practice inspired by the persona process from Dr. Lene Nieson (Huprich, 2019) and the framework of empathy in the design process (Kouprie & Visser, 2009).
- Discover: In this step, put on a mask as a learner and gather some quantitative data. Try to understand learners as much as possible through interviews, observations, secondhand information, questionnaires, reports, and cultural probes.
- Immerse: After exploring and discovering learners’ situations and experiences, gather qualitative data by conducting focus groups, individual interviews, and surveys. Ask questions like: Who are they? What do they want to accomplish? What information are they looking for? The important factor of this step is to keep an open mind and remain nonjudgemental when wandering around in the learners’ world
- Connect: In the connection phase, Kouprie and Visser (2009) suggest you should find a way to make a connection with learners on an emotional level by resonating with them about personal feelings and experiences. I recommend extending this step to find patterns and look for themes in the data so you can rigorously group learners based on common themes. For example, a large percentage of your learners may report they are more comfortable using Zoom to record than Kaltura or Echo360.
- Construct: In this step, construct personas using the themes you have identified. Then start to flesh out the persona you’re working on.
- Detach: Take a step back to understand the learners and their worlds more holistically. This step helps you reflect on new ideas and insights to help learners.
More Tips and Tools
You can start creating a persona with just paper and a pencil or use software such as Google Docs or Slides, Keynote, or PowerPoint. You can also use worksheets or posters available online. However, one thing to remember is developing personas is a social collaborative process, whether you do this with team members or go solo. Several design-thinking tools can support you with crafting personas and customizing them, such as Google Jamboard, Sprintbase, Miro, Mural, Shape, and Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides. Lately one of my favourite tools is Miro. It’s an open collaborative whiteboarding tool, and it even has persona templates you can work with.
Learning designers or instructors usually start with questions I mention in Step 2. I suggest adding more critical questions that can support you in the process of leveraging personas in digital teaching and learning:
- Will this persona be learning completely online, face-to-face, or a combination?
- Describe the platforms in which this persona might be learning.
- Where will the learning be asynchronous or synchronous? Why?
- List or describe any digital tools that might support distributed or open learning.
- How would you describe this persona’s ideal learning context?
- Where are the real and perceived barriers to learning that prevent safe, flexible, and supportive learning experiences and environments for this persona?
- Are there real or perceived equity, social justice, or cultural considerations that are a hindrance for this persona to approach safe, flexible, and supportive learning spaces?
Try to avoid persona traps or building stereotypes, as suggested in Connie Malamed’s blog. Your main purpose is to better design with the needs of your personas as a starting point. By building personas, you learn to design with and for others. You learn to put aside biases and stereotypes to meaningfully celebrate the diversity and potential of your learners.
In the process of teaching, learning, and transforming with technology, I believe we should adopt a human-centred approach that considers learners, educators, and staff first, as suggested in B.C.’s digital literacy framework document: Digital Learning Strategy (Consultation Draft). Designing and teaching online courses is truly the work of treating and celebrating learners as wonderful, capable, curious, unpredictable, and multi-layered. In that transformative process, I believe learning to co-build personas is one of the key skills and the first step in the praxis of designing for care.
The Digital Pedagogy Toolbox blog series is a monthly blog post series that features highlights of interactive technologies and pedagogies in learning and teaching design. This series is an extended version of our monthly FLO Tech Tool Tip blog series. In these blogs you may find an activity that supports innovative and effective teaching practice in technology-infused learning environments, a short recipe for digital teaching and learning, or some tips on the pedagogical uses of a tool for instruction.
- Digital Pedagogy Toolbox: Creating Engaging, Interactive Learning Resources
- Digital Pedagogy Toolbox: Ethics as Design
Baaki, J., Maddrell, J., & Stauffer, E. (2017). Designing authentic personas for open education resources designers. International Journal of Designs for Learning, 8(2), 110–122. https://doi.org/10.14434/ijdl.v8i2.22427
Malamed, C. Learning personas for instructional design. http://theelearningcoach.com/elearning_design/audience/learner-personas-for-elearning/
Huprich, J. (2019). Building learner personas for instructional design effectiveness. Medium. https://medium.com/@juliahuprich/building-learner-personas-for-instructional-design-effectiveness-8787d4e5d1d2
Huynh, T., Madsen, A. M., McKagan, S., & Sayre, E. (2021). Building personas from phenomenography: a method for user-centred design in education. Information and Learning Science, 122(11/12), 689–708. http://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-12-2020-0256
Nielsen, L. (2013). Personas-user focused design (Vol. 15). London, UK: Springer Science & Business Media. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4471-4084-9
van Rooij, S. W. (2012). Research-based personas: Teaching empathy in professional education. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 12(3), 77–86.