Personas for the design of learning systems

Brad Colbow cartoon on Persona Development

The two panels shown above are from Brad Colbow’s comic strip, The Power of Personas, from his Think Vitamin blog.

I am including them here because I am going to take a break from all the theory I’ve been posting the last few weeks, and share a bit of what I have been doing at work.  I have been developing a cognitive framework for persona development.

What, you may be asking, is a “persona”, and what use may it be to the design of learning systems?

In the world of user experience design, a persona is a mental model, or archetype, of a class or type of user.  It’s a one-page psychological profile of an imaginary person who represents a distinct set of goals and the behavior patterns that may cascade from those goals.  A persona is methodically crafted from a synthesis of rigorous research. Getting to know a persona is like reading a character sketch for a person in a novel. Developing personas helps my company, an international online travel booking site, focus  on its users. That’s because you can relate to the persona as an individual human being.

What a persona is NOT:

  • A persona is not a “role”,  which focuses on tasks, and which does not incorporate goals as an organizing principle for design thinking
  • A persona is not a collection of demographic information or a “market segment”
  • A persona is not a representation of a niche user, such as users who prefer a specific channel such as mobile, or users who buy a specific type of package.
  • A persona is not a weapon or rhetorical tool whipped out at strategic moments to make a point.

Why should learning designers use personas?

Personas were brought to the attention of user experience designers by Alan Cooper in his 1999 book The Inmates are Running the Asylum. He pointed out that personas:

  • Help team members share a specific, consistent understanding of various audience groups. Data about the groups can be put in a proper context and can be understood and remembered in coherent stories.
  • Help designers propose solutions guided by how well they meet the needs of individual user personas. Features can be prioritized based on how well they address the needs of one or more personas.
  • Provide a human “face” so as to focus empathy on the persons represented by the demographics.

In his 2007 book About Face, Cooper went on to say that personas:

  • Determine what a product should do and how it should behave. Persona goals and tasks provide the foundation for the design effort.
  • Communicate with stakeholders, developers, and other designers. Personas provide a common language for discussing design decisions and also help keep the design centered on users at every step in the process.
  • Build consensus and commitment to the design. With a common language comes a common understanding. Personas reduce the need for elaborate diagrammatic models; it’s easier to understand the many nuances of user behavior through the narrative structures that personas employ. put simply, because personas resemble real people, they’re easier to relate to than feature lists and flowcharts.
  • Measure the design’s effectiveness. Design choices can be tested on a persona in the same way that they can be shown to a real user during the formative process. Although this doesn’t replace the need to test with real users, it provides a powerful reality-check tool for designers trying to solve design problems. This allows design iteration to occur rapidly and inexpensively at the whiteboard, and it results in a far strong design baseline when the time comes to test with actual people
  • Contribute to other product-related efforts such as marketing and sales plans. The authors have seen their clients repurpose personas across their organization, informing marketing campaigns, organizational structure, and other strategic planning activities. Business units outside of product development desire sophisticated knowledge of a product’s users and typically view personas with great interest.
  • Personas also can resolve three design issues that arise during product development: the elastic user (the user is anyone you want it to be), self-referential design and edge cases.

By now you might be saying, “Ah-ha, I see how using personas could help the designer of learning systems understand users, and thus design more sensibly and empathetically.”

So I don’t really have to spell it out, do I?

What is the risk of not using personas in our work as designers of learning systems?

  • We won’t understand our prototypical learners, and their goals, attitudes and behaviors
  • We may be self-referential in our design
  • Design teams won’t share a common understanding of  various audience groups
  • Feature prioritization is not based on user needs
  • Other mental models will be needed to support feature development choices
  • We may be way off the mark when it comes to testing with actual people
  • The user becomes elastic (anyone you want it to be at the moment)
  • We may have trouble defining edge cases
  • We might build what users ask for instead of what they would really use
  • Design cycles may be lengthened
  • Product quality may be impaired

3 thoughts on “Personas for the design of learning systems

  1. I am a big fan of personas so I’m glad to see you applying them to learning work! I’m not sure I’d be as strict in terms of saying what is a persona and what isn’t.

    One client recently benefited greatly from a very simple behaviour-based segmentation approach to their staff’s information use (desk jockeys, road warriors & satellites).

    At the other extreme, this open research project uses narrative & sensemaking techniques to develop very rich archetype sets: (click on the workshop outputs to see what I mean)

    • Thanks for the link! I love the drawings people whipped out to describe the archetypes. Best practices for persona presentation have been described by Forrester and others, but I think I like these quick little sketches and hand-written notes better! One of the things that I have noticed from looking at a lot of personas over the past few months is that the more informal the presentation, the more I tend to believe the persona. Using candid snapshots and drawings trumps the use of slick photography every time. Using short quotes and lively language beats abstract narratives and tidy little bullet points all in a row. I am willing to have my mind changed but for now, that’s where I stand. Now — how do introduce some spontaneity of style into my carefully constructed persona documents?

  2. I think you’ll have most of it anyway – it’s the voice of the user! Incidentally the process in the “using expertise” work is quite rigorous & time-consuming (what’s on the site are only the interim results). How do we spread the word among learning types?

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