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Every Profession that Designs Experiences For Others Uses Personas... Except Learning and Development

adult learning behavioral science corporate training gamification instructional design motivation narrative Jun 12, 2019

Pretty much every profession that designs experiences for other people uses personas… except the learning and development community. Game designers, app designers, web page designers all rely on personas to determine what will appeal to their target audiences and what things they should avoid. But for some reason, instructional designers skip this stage. They simply build a program around the course material without consideration of their “customers.”

Personas came from the marketing world a few decades ago. Marketers realized that focusing on whole populations wasn’t effective. They needed actual personas who are so complete you feel like they are your friend. Once you have their picture in front of you, you can create marketing copy that feels like you are talking directly to a single person instead of broadcasting to an entire population.

Whenever we speak about learner personas at conferences, we get push back. People say things like, “You don’t understand; I have to create programs for the whole company.” We had one attendee say, “But I have 2.5 million people taking my programs.”

These concerns are valid. In marketing, we’re not trying to sell to everyone; only to those who will buy what we’re selling. Game designers don’t expect everyone to play their games; just enough to be successful. Not everyone played Candy Crush or Pokémon Go, but a ton of folks did. And app and website folks focus on who will be using their products. Meanwhile, you, as a designer of learning experience, don’t have the luxury of designing for a select group in your company while ignoring all others.

But when we design for everyone, we end up designing for no one. Or better said if you know my concept of self-hugging, when we design for everyone, we end up designing for ourselves. We see the world through our own lenses. So, as we create, we place the content in a manner that makes sense to us and in a manner that we enjoy receiving information. The problem is your learners are not like you. In fact, when it comes to Motivation Profiles, I’d bet that they are very different from you. After all, they are not in Learning and Development. They made very different choices in life and engage in activities you’d never consider.

I once had a speaking coach who said, “Twenty percent of your audience will love you no matter what you do. Twenty percent will hate you know matter what you do because you look like the guy who stole their lunch money in school. It’s what you do with the middle 60 percent that matters.”

In other words, when you design for yourself, roughly 20 percent of folks will appreciate your training and 20 percent, well… not so much. Your job is to reach the middle 60 percent. And the only way you’ll be able to design for them is if you “know” them. And you can’t know a whole group, but you can get to know individuals who represent segments of your audience.

However, DO NOT use an actual person as your learner persona. This creates all sorts of limitations on your design. Instead, you want a detailed persona with whom you’ve never had an argument or awkward moment. 

So, while you may not have a single learner persona who represents your whole company, you may have different learner personas who represent segments of your company. For instance, you might have a learner persona for upper management, one for all departments related to finance, one for marketing, and one for your support folks.

Another mental obstacle you must get over is that not all of your middle 60% are women, of one ethnicity, one generation, or one blood type. It doesn’t matter. Someone who goes into marketing will have a similar enough Motivation Profile with other marketing folks that when you design for that learner persona, they’ll still be able to relate to the persona.

For each learner persona you want demographic and psycho-graphic information so that you’ll be able to create a dossier on them, complete with their picture, and their name. Then, as you design, prop up the pictures of your learner personas in front of you. At each step, consult your persona to determine if this activity or game mechanic appeals to them. More importantly, ask whether they will be turned off by anything in your program.

So now that you know you need learner personas, you’re wondering HOW to create one. Well, I’ve got you covered. I gave a webinar recently that walks you quickly through a process of creating your Learner Personas. You can watch the replay here

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