Using personas in design of online and blended learning

Why would you work with personas when designing online or blended learning? In this blog I will share my enthusiasm about working with personas. Working with personas is not only useful for marketing professionals but also useful in a design process for learning trajectories.

Abdel lives in the capital of Mali, studies journalism and is eager to learn. He has internet access via the university network on his Huawei smartphone. He would like to learn how he can get in touch with other students in other cities in West Africa and as a journalist he would like to share developments from Mali with the rest of the world.

Hawa lives in the countryside of Mali and buys cards to access to the internet on her mobile, so she has an internet access roughly three times a week. She would like to learn how she can make short videos about her life for the NGO she works with. They have asked her to record and share how she lives and works.

Abdel and Hawa do not really exist but are personas we have created and discussed during the design of an online citizen journalism course for people in Mali. The names Abdel and Hawa often come back: if Hawa only logs in 3 times a week, shouldn’t we allow a full week for the photo assignment instead of 3 days? It also leads to the discussion whether we can actually design one course for Abdel and Hawa. In this way we come to the solution of weekly bonus assignments because Abdel might drop out if the course is not interesting enough. Abdel and Hawa prove their usefulness in this design process because the use of these two personas allow us to get into the skin of our target group. We can continuously test the design against “real personas”.

Aren’t personas rather used for marketing purposes?

Working with personas has its background in marketing and design thinking. A persona is a very detailed description of a user of a product or service. Marketers use it to develop products and to think about marketing a product. The dutch Albert Heijn was critized by the UN because of their personas. The customer profiles would lead to stereotypical images of customer. That is the first pitfall of working with personas. It can lead to a stereotyping of the practice. If you have that feeling, it may be good to talk more/again with the target group.

How to develop personas?

It is best to developing the personas in an interactive session with a design group consisting of various stakeholders, often content experts and other actors. A first step is to discuss the most important (sub) target groups. Then you divide the target groups among your design group. Ask your design group to crawl under the skin of a participant. In small groups you ask them to make a persona by going through the following steps:

  • Make a drawing of a person
  • Give a name
  • Add a global description of his / her life and work
  • How does he / she use the internet? via which devices?
  • Why does he / she participate in the course, training or community?
  • What does he / she want to learn?
  • What is he / she allergic to?

After this invite the groups to present their persona in the I-form (I am Hawa and I live in Sarafere) so that people can really empathize. I have experienced that some people will make a caricature of the persona, especially if they have a difficult relationship with the group the persona represents. Try to ask for positive aspects. In fact, this exercise also gives you a sense of whether the design group has sufficient knowledge of the target group. Ofcourse, you may adjust these questions yourself or use an empathy-map.

An interesting tool to start personas may be

Thispersondoesnotexist. The site will give you a random photo. Similarly uinames will provide you with fake names. You may select a country and then by clicking on the spacebar you get a fake name, that’s how I get Camiel de Ruyter born in 1989. I have not tried this yet, but it might stimulate creativity.

Why I believe in the power of personas

The main design challenge is to make sure your design suits the needs and practices of the participants. Content experts in particular often think about what is important for everyone to know rather than what the participants need. At the same time, the content experts often know the target group very well. Of course you can also invite the audience or do interviews, but you may use personas if you think the subject matter experts and others know the participants quite well.

I have very positive experiences with working with personas. Making personas is ideal to get the knowledge of the design group about their colleagues or the target group on the table. Often this knowledge is available in the design group. By working with personas the group develops empathy and gets a lively image of the target group. You force your design group to get into the skin of the future participants. Personas are fictional characters and not persons that make it much more neutral to speak about them.

For the best effect, you should regularly look through the eyes of the personas during the design. With Hawa and Abdel, that worked out well, in other cases you sometimes forget to use the personas lateron during the design process. I do not really know how that is. Maybe too many personas? Or do you still start thinking from the content side and is that a pitfall?

Designing jointly with the target group versus working with personas

An alternative to working with personas is inviting the target group to participate in your design process. This is not always possible, as in the case of Hawa and Abdel. If you invite representatives of the target group in the design process, it is important that they can think along from a broader perspective than their own interests. A persona can be a good alternative because you talk about fictitious case and this gives space to play with the design. When ‘real’ participants say something, it can not be ignored but it may not be representative for the whole group of participants.

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