Using personas to make your training program more effective

Using personas internally can guide the development of many different parts of a training program.

Marketing professionals and interface designers use many tools and frameworks to put the user at the center of their choices, and personas are one of the most essential. They use personas externally as a shorthand to speak about segments of users. With an inward focus, many training managers and instructional designers report trying to adopt a user-centered approach as well. Yet, research suggests that training departments are not effectively considering using personas internally when developing courses.

How to use personas to develop your brand voice

Read on for some basic information about personas and a look at how using personas internally can improve your training, learning, and development programs.


Persona basics

(skip this part if you’re already a persona ninja) describes personas as reliable and realistic representations of your key audience segments, created for reference. Most personas are characters created by the designer, based on both qualitative and quantitative data.

There are many types of quantitative data, since this data can be gained through a variety of methods. It may take the form of demographic segmentation from a third-party researcher, like Gartner. Or, it could include data from recent assessments, employee satisfaction surveys, or needs analysis studies. The data might even include usability testing results from previous training courses.


Choosing the right data to work with

Why use quantitative data? Because it provides you with a solid understanding of who your learners are from a variety of angles:

  • What are their basic demographics? Age, gender, race, education level, and socio-economic background can all influence how we learn.
  • How do they define their wants and needs as learners? Do they say they want more leadership skills or technical skills? Are they motivated by financial reward or social pressure? Tapping into these needs can be powerful.
  • What do their actions indicate about their wants and needs? So often we say we want something, but our actions reveal different preferences. You may be able to learn a lot by comparing what learners say (for example, “I want more online training”) with what they do (not complete online training).

Qualitative data, on the other hand, usually comes from interviews, whether conducted one-on-one or in a group setting like a focus group. Although good personas are always grounded in data, the best personas are based on people the designer or writer actually knows—from an interview or from real life.


Personas vs. Archetypes

Another term you may come across when researching user-centered design is “archetypes.” Archetypes are like personas in the sense that they’re created to guide the designer towards user-friendly choices. However, archetypes focus less on demographics and more directly on user behavior and how the consumer interacts with the product or website based on the archetype used in the product. The advantage to using archetypes is that they don’t allow demographics to become a distraction. Often, we may feel the same as other people of our gender or in our age group or socio-economic group—but that’s by no means always the case.


Applying personas to training programs

Using personas internally can guide the development of many different parts of a training program. They can inform your course format—particularly if you consider both the learners’ stated format preference (for example, short video eLearning courses) and their actual performance when completing that type of course (maybe not as good as with in-person content delivery and electronic follow-up). Personas can also guide the content you create, allowing you to address both what learners want to know and what they need to know. And finally, personas can reveal your learners’ motivations, allowing you to craft messaging and reward systems that help keep them engaged.


Getting started

The first step to creating personas is to identify and decide what quantitative data you are going to use and where you are going to get it.

In a training setting, you may find it easy to create personas and archetypes because you have a more limited, targeted pool of users. You know who your employees are and have at least some access to them, so remember use them as a resource! Sit down and talk with your learners—not their managers or supervisors. Find out what their motivations and barriers are and try to create some generalizations that can help guide your design decisions. You won’t need to do hundreds of interviews before patterns begin to emerge. Conducting as few as 10 interviews could be sufficient if your population is fairly heterogeneous. For more diverse groups, 50 interviews will give you great insight and likely help you identify 2 to 4 personas.


Creating your personas

After you’ve identified your research methods and collected your data, it’s time to wade in and look for patterns. Persona creation is both an art and a science. Look for clusters of wants and needs to identify a handful of learners that are representative of the whole. Some people prefer to base each persona on an actual person who is typical of a group. Others like to create a fictional character that draws on general characteristics. Either way, the persona creation process comes down to sifting through your data and writing, editing, and re-writing your persona details until they feel like real people to you. Don’t be afraid to share your personas with your colleagues and keep tweaking them until they resonate with them, too.

Now you’re ready to test your personas by using them. Start designing and writing your course with your new targets in mind. Think about what your personas would want and need at each step of the learning process. Then, make sure to continually question your own assumptions and keep your personas front-and-center.


Putting your personas to work

Soon, these personas will become very real to you and your team. ThoughtForm founder Don Moyer often invoked the persona “Gary” when evaluating writing. Gary, based on Don’s brother, was intelligent and educated. He was also busy, sometimes short-tempered, and quick to dismiss things that didn’t instantly fit with what he already knew.

The trick to reaching Gary was to begin with information and ideas that were already familiar to him. Then, put the “crumbs” close enough together so that Gary could follow—but not so close that he would lose interest. Don could have told you that Gary was a white male, 55 years old, with a wife and two kids, a bachelor’s degree from a state school, and making a high five-figure salary. But the richness of the Gary persona came from knowing him, not just his demographics. Don invoked Gary so often that both colleagues and clients began to ask, “Would Gary get this?” or “How would Gary feel about this?” as an instinctual way of assessing if something was overly complicated or unclear.

Personas are not a magic bullet, but researching and creating them can help any team to better understand your users. For training, learning, and development teams, using personas when designing your course can improve the learner’s experience, elevate the course’s content, and ensure that it resonates with the motivations bringing the learner to the table. And all of that can lead to better knowledge transfer—and ultimately, behavior change.

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