Posted by Barbara Opyt ● June 19, 2019

Developing Empathy and Understanding through Learner Personas

Learner Persona blog

Has this ever happened to you?

The Subject Matter Expert (SME) was adamant: The training program had to include every possible thing that could go wrong with the process and the consequences of those failures. Was a focus on possible failures the right way to engage our learner?

As learning professionals, we want our SMEs and stakeholders to feel that we are bringing their vision to life. But what do you do when you know that the proposed content or treatment of the content won’t help the learners that we are here to empower?

How might you proceed?

One way to handle this situation is to create a Learner Persona to help understand who your target audience is and what their individual needs and goals are. And that’s just what we did in this situation. 

During the Define phase of the project, we reviewed data about our target learners and interviewed selected audience members to understand their backgrounds and perspectives about the topic. Then, during the design workshop, we worked with SMEs and stakeholders to develop a Learner Persona to represent the audience. We named our target learner “Lavonda” and described her as experiencing a great deal of stress and anxiety as a result of the changes in multiple processes over the past year. We noted that she was very conscientious and cared a great deal about doing the right thing—she just wasn’t sure sometimes what the right thing was. Given the right resources, Lavonda could, and would adopt the new process and enjoy the benefits of the increased efficiency. Every SME and stakeholder in the room agreed: Yes, this is a realistic, humanistic representation of our target learner. This training program should be designed to empower and support Lavonda in adopting this new process.

What is the value of Learner Personas?

Learner Personas are useful to keep design teams aligned on the focus, tone, and design aesthetic of the training program. We become more empathetic to learners when they have a name and a face. Learning Personas allow us to think about what our learners say, think, do and feel, so that we can fully empathize with them and their situations and needs. They remind us that we are developing programs that will be used by humans, with real needs.

They are also useful for the design team to use in communicating with clients.

By reminding the SME about Lavonda, her conscientious nature, her desire to do the right thing, and how the “What’s in it For Me” (WIIFM) of the new process would motivate her, we were able to demonstrate how the “what could go wrong” approach did not fit the learner’s needs.

How are Learner Personas used during design and development?

Learner Personas are created in the Define phase of the Caveo A2 Process. Then, during the Content Strategy phase, we refer back to the personas and continually refine the content and approach by asking questions such as:

  • What does Lavonda need in order to be successful?
  • How would Lavonda respond to this content?
  • What does Lavonda already know that we can link to?
  • When will Lavonda need this level of detailed information?
  • Where will Lavonda be looking for information?

Every review cycle includes a look at the Learner Persona to gauge how they will react to the learning program:

  • Will Lavonda be able to navigate this eLearning intuitively?
  • Does the assessment accurately measure Lavonda’s understanding of the material?
  • Is Lavonda getting the feedback she needs to assure her she’s on the right track?
  • What follow-up interventions should we plan to ensure learning retention?

How did it all work out?

In the end, the adamant SME was also able to empathize with the “Lavonda” persona. The resulting learning program was designed to focus on the benefits of the new process, how the learner’s role could contribute to its success, and how to determine the right thing to do using the support tools available. As an aside, the content from the SME about “what could go wrong” was used to create a takeaway job aid on how to identify risks and mitigate potential issues. The bottom line: The content was not the problem, positioning it in a way that would resonate with learners and drive desired results was the issue standing in the way of success. Our “Lavonda” persona was the key to empathizing with and thereby developing the right learning content that would resonate with the target audience.


Watch our on-demand webinar—Learner Personas: One Size Doesn't Fit All

Topics: Instructional Design