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Framing Learner Personas

First published December 11 2002 - Maish Nichani

This article introduces a requirements-gathering strategy known as "personas." This is widely used in Information Architecture (IA) to design user-centered solutions. In e-learning design, personas can be useful in analyzing learners needs and habitsÑthe needs lead to the design of effective instruction; habits lead to the design of effective contexts.

The need for personas

E-learning designers have come to realize that the hardest part of the project life cycle is the analysis phase. It is in this phase that the performance requirements are gathered and analyzed to find the best solution, or rather the best solution under the specific contexts (constraints). But more often than not, the analysis is focused only on the problem-at-hand.

For example:

The problem with such a just-in-time solution is that it ignores context. It´s like having a fireworks display in broad daylight. It´s not that the fireworks will be less effective in broad daylight; it´s just that the spectators will have a hard time appreciating the value of the display. Similarly, learners will find it hard to appreciate and value the instruction if its not embedded into their daily activities.

Personas is a way to force the realization that working traits and habits are to be fully understood in order to design effectively.

What are personas?

Alan Copper, widely known as the "father of Visual Basic", first espoused personas in his book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. According to Cooper, " [Personas] are a precise description of our user and what he wishes to accomplish." Usually it's a short narrative describing the user and the goals he's pursuing under a specific context.

More specifically, personas are:

I'm not going to go into the details of personas and how to create them; many wonderful articles listed alongside have already done that. In this article, I want to show how personas affect design decisions.

Here's a simple persona, Joel Chee, a sales executive at Tipsy Breweries.

Joel is a 34 year old, highly experienced sales executive at Tipsy Breweries. He is part of the team catering to upmarket restaurants and bars. His job requires him to make Tipsy Beers the largest selling brand in this market segment. His strategy is to keep abreast of emerging patterns in consumer behavior and demand, and to take appropriate steps to leverage them.

Joel's modus operandi is to strengthen ties with the the Food & Beverage (F&B) department of his target bars and restaurants and to work the ties to drive sales. He prides his own information gathering techniques, and is confident with his ad-hoc decision making.

Although Joel has his own cabin at Tipsy Breweries HQ, he seldom uses it as he is always on the road. He usually travels by train or taxis, and to pass those long commuting hours, he reads magazines like American Brewer and Beer Travelers.

Now, if we were to design an e-learning course to teach Joel on a new sales strategy, we can immediately see the constraints we'll have to deal with: independent working style; conversational habit; and lack of time. No amount of SCORM compliance or Reusable Learning Objects is going to get Joel to learn from this course if these constraints are not removed.

On the other hand, apart from showing the constraints, personas also reveal opportunities that can be exploited to enhance the learning experience. Long commuting hours, independent working style, and reliance on stories are opportunities that can be exploited to create a memorable learning experience.

Personas are designed by first gathering information from the fieldÑinterviews with subject matter experts, attitude/habit observations, goal analysis, etc. Analysis of this information will lead to a list of archetypal usersÑusers having common goals. This list can be further broken down to a primary persona and one or two secondary personas. All design decisions can fall under the scope of these personasÑfocused on the primary; accommodating on the secondary[s].

Example

This is a simple example that I use with my instructional design students to demonstrate different design decisions based on differing personas. It´s not an e-learning example, but an example that can be easily appreciated because the subjectÑbus service guidesÑis situated in my students´ everyday context.

Let´s say that you are to design service guides for a public transport company, EasyBus. A quick analysis will lead to the following list:

Once you have the personas it´s easy to focus design decisions on meeting specific needs under the specific contexts versus meeting generic needs under generic contexts. Focused design decisions result in more effective outcomes as can be seen in these screen shots of real service guides in Singapore.

Conclusion
Personas could be a useful technique to get a confident start in the analysis phase, as a properly framed learner personas will boost the design process and enable effective communication between members of the design team. Personas enables a shared understanding of the problem and a common vision of the solution. Focused, effective, and in-context solutions drive motivation in learners, and ultimately leads to real performance improvements.

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