Whether you’re doing a presentation, building a product or designing learning solutions, understanding your audience is fundamental to successful results. Making assumptions about the needs, goals and motivations of your learners can undermine the intended impact. That’s why it’s important to do thorough research on who your product is for and what you hope they will take away from it.
It’s usually not feasible to meet and get to know your target audience individually. Of course, this challenge is not unique to L&D, but other industries (such as marketing, user experience design and product development) have bridged the gap by using tools and techniques to help better understand their audiences. These same techniques can be used by L&D professionals, but it’s important that we use them in the right way.
Before talking about these different methods, let’s take a moment to understand the business of learning design. Learning is a process that happens in the brain. While we call what we do learning design, it’s not learning that we’re designing. We’re actually designing the best conditions for learning in a given setting – that’s why it’s fundamental to understand the audience and their workplace, where the process of learning happens. So with that in mind, let’s examine at some important ideas around understanding audiences.
The marketing and advertising industries have long used segmentation to better understand users and their markets based on unifying characteristics. Generally, each market segment is given a name to identify its members, along with a description containing certain identifying attributes. Based on a given segmentation, a company can create a persona and align their marketing strategy for the best conversion. The problem is that market segmentation alone does not tell you enough about your audience’s authentic needs, goals and motivation.
While market segmentation is important, it’s primarily a tool used to capture behavior that’s related to purchasing – to really understand individual learners you need to go a little deeper. That’s where user personas  come in, or in this case, learner personas. These are essentially fictional characters built on aggregated, real-world user data that helps designers see the key behaviors or patterns that emerge in a specific environment.
At this point you might be wondering why we use devices to create made-up learners to understand markets. Why don’t we just talk to real users instead? Well, according to About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design, experiential design is meant to include actual users in the persona-building process. However, there’s a potential pitfall in relying on a few real users. You risk losing the bigger picture and not capturing overall patterns. That’s why the process should aim to zoom out and discover overall trends when building learner personas. This is done by using data to create an amalgamation that’s based on a larger range of individuals.
It may seem like hard work but understanding learner persona activity can help you design better conditions for learning or problem solving in the real-world context of a project. Going through hundreds of user persona activities at Kineo, we’ve noticed some consistent best practices for doing this. For instance, it always helps to use personification in the process of creating learner personas. By bringing in the human element, you can not only understand a person’s role, but also get to the root of their needs, goals and frustrations.
The result of thoughtful learner persona research is a tangible document that represents a new, fictitious team member. This is beneficial when the full team needs to make decisions throughout the project. They will be able to view a learning solution through the lens of the persona and can consider what this person would need throughout their development. The discussion of a user persona’s activity is also priceless for the designer. The added perspective can spotlight misunderstandings, assumptions, and differences in visions between stakeholders and subject matter experts. The ensuing discussions often reveal crucial elements that would otherwise unnoticed until later in the project when it’s pricey to change the concept. Or worse, they might be missed all together.
Helpful tips and tools
When doing a learner persona activity face-to-face in a room with multiple people, I’ve found that the easiest way is to use large, flipchart-size printouts. You can add areas, labels, and questions to let your stakeholders and SMEs collaborate on filling them out to create the learner. If you have a smaller group to work with (or if some participants are on the phone), you can use an online tool such as Xtensio, which allows you to simply drag and drop together the user persona before the meeting so you can customize it for the client with a color theme, logo, style, wording of questions, etc. Then you can facilitate the exercise using free text forms and sliders online. At the end, with a click of a button you can download your persona as a PDF. Usually we create no more than 3-4 personas for a project, but the exact specifications are up to you.
 About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design 4th Edition by Alan Cooper (Author), Robert Reimann (Author), David Cronin (Author), Christopher Noessel (Author)
 Profiles and Personas are built on aggregated, real-world user data that helps designers see the key behaviors or patterns that emerge. The two terms are often used interchangeably. However, personas should always be based on first-hand, in-context user observations, interviews, and other primary resources. If you do not have access to real users, and you’re relying on subject matter experts, supervisors and managers to provide you data on users, it’s user profile at its best. That said, since in L&D we tend to use these two terms interchangeably, just make sure you’re consistent.
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