Using personas in learning design

This post reflects on using personas in learning design and in particular how I worked with personas during Block 3 of H817 The Learning Design Studio.

In a previous post I made some general comments about the Learning Design Studio process. In this post, I’m looking back on the key aspect of defining the context and in particular understanding who to design for.

In some of the work I do with designing or developing learning experiences, the learners can often be seen as an amorphous group of people ‘somewhere out there’. Conversely, learners are seen as a highly disparate group who have few common characteristics (they may be mixed ages, genders, educational level) and so attempting to design for this group is seen as either very difficult or just impossible. Another approach is to attempt a universal design approach for learning that caters for all, but this approach is not without its detractors. It’s arguable whether it is possible to achieve universal design beyond a rather general and technically focussed approach.

So it’s been revealing working in Block 3 of H817 Learning Design Studio, where a key part of the learning design process has been to engage with personas. Personas are defined as

‘ ‘Fictional characters created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic, attitude and/or behavior set that might use a site, brand or product in a similar way.’(Wikipedia , 2012) ‘

The advantage of developing personas is that in thinking of users as real people with names, specific details and needs, they cease to become ‘elastic’, and it is the product or learning design that needs to bend to them rather than the other way round.

Developing personas for the Exploring Giant’s Causeway project

In our project, three team members each developed two personas based on the vague outcome that the site would support visitors to the Giant’s Causeway site. Initially, I came up with the following personas:  Marcia, a Texan-based university student, Yuan – a British educated Malaysian father with two daughters visiting the site and our most memorable persona ‘Ryan’ – a sightly disgruntled assistant manager in the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre. My colleagues developed equally engaging personas, and interestingly both of them independently developed American personas with Irish roots.

ryan_persona_blog

Snapshot of a developed persona in the persona template

Working with personas helped to make the design real. Initially the process seemed contrived as I felt I was writing the cast of a potential soap opera. The task was to use the persona templates to create personas – detailed identities with names, pictures and personal habits of individuals for whom the learning was to be designed or who might be a stakeholder in the process.

Yet after this initial wave of (somewhat enjoyable) persona writing, I was struck with richness of the discussion that followed amongst the group and saw practically how the process of developing personas helped to define the context. We realised that the type of learning ‘in the wild’ we might want to develop around the myths and legends of the site might be more suitable to school children, family groups and teachers rather than tourists. Details in the personas’ profiles such as mobile phone roaming charges for overseas visitors,  the desire of tourists to travel in groups and have fun, as opposed to more directed field trip organisers helped us to develop and narrow the context. We also considered what was already available for tourists at the Giant’s Causeway – a reasonably sophisticated audio tour.

Therefore, although school children, teachers and family groups had not featured strongly in our original group of personas they emerged as the people we would design for during the discussion. So, we went back to the drawing board, we culled some personas, enhanced some we had currently and created two new ones (a school girl and a head teacher). I took inspiration from the Giant’s Causeway Trip Adviser site to develop Ryan and Yuan’s personas further, while a colleague based a new Headteacher persona on a real-life school.

In some ways, our work was still limited due to time but useful. For example, we kept Yuan but enhanced his profile as a father of two daughters. If we’d had more time, we might have considered making up separate personas for his daughters. We developed Ryan as he has to deal with school children and teachers as part of his job, and we still acknowledged the importance of other visitors to the site who could still make use of the product.

This discussion helped keep the activity real, as during the time I was developing personas I had a niggling doubts that I might be missing some key learners  and how could I possibly cover the full range of possible users?

Reflections on using persons

Personas therefore provided a valuable means of discussing some of the realities of the potential learners’ situation. The potential learners became real. We worried about whether all the school children would have a mobile device, even though we knew that some schools would provide some devices. We worried that parents were unsure about letting their children have mobile devices and the cost of data might be prohibitive. We thought about Ryan’s attitude that people coming to the Giant’s Causeway should be more concerned about enjoying the scenery than huddling around a mobile device might preclude him from promotion the use of augmented reality at the site.

Initially, the personas exercise for a learning design seemed rather meaningless as there were potentially so many variables for this type of project – an outdoors learning in the wild using mobile devices. However, that in itself became a useful pointer to deciding that it was necessary to narrow down to a group of somewhat connected individuals. In a way, persona development was akin to putting a stake in the ground and making some assertions about possible learners. In setting the context, the persona’s factors and concerns helped flesh out some of the design challenges. The approach has its limitations where the group may have overlooked a major stakeholder, but working in a group meant that there could be a reasonable degree of confidence that a range of users, their factors and concerns had been covered.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Using personas in learning design

  1. Pingback: Articulating the context in the learning design studio | littlegreycellsblog

  2. Sukaina I was very moved by your explanation of how the personas exercise helped develop your learning design. I can see how they can encourage a greater depth of thought into the needs of the users and stakeholders. But I have reservations about them – One you have already mentioned, is the time it takes to complete them. Indeed the whole Learning Design Studio process requires time and that in turn translates into cost. That is not say that thoughtful design is not a worthwhile investment and essential to good learning, but the process is complex and the benefits would need to be greater than the costs. Maybe its is useful for courses and expensive learning projects.

    But even then I feel personas should be viewed with caution – if persona are created using what the designers envisage are the needs and motivations of representations of key players in a learning experience they will be flawed. The persona will be a product of their own understanding tinged with their own beliefs and perceptions – they are an attempt to look at a different point of view, but will always be limited. The only way to be sure what other people want is to ask them and even then they may not tell the truth. Quite expensive choices could be made using information that is imagined, created but not checked. Very often peoples ideas of customers and stakeholders is based on narrow personal experience not wider sampling.

    As a creative tool I can see that they have clearly benefited your project. Thanks for a very useful post.

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