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10 tips for creating realistic, empathy-driven learner personas

Learner personas are an indispensable tool in learning design.

They help us keep the learner at the centre of our design process so we develop an engaging and relevant experience for them.

But they’re not easy to create. 

To write realistic, empathy-driven personas, you need to get accurate and authentic learner data. And that can be hard, especially if you’re an external learning partner.

Never fear. We have some tips to help you.

But first, a quick recap.

What exactly is a learner persona?

Personas are fictional but realistic character snapshots that represent a slice of an audience, based on solid research. They’ve been used by product and marketing teams for years to help them empathise with their customers and produce a better experience for them.

In the learning world, personas are used in much the same way — to keep the focus squarely on the learner experience and so deliver better outcomes.

To make a learner persona, you gather real information like the targeted learner’s role, skillset (soft and technical), behaviour, motivations, needs and challenges and use it to create a believable profile.

Why are learner personas important?


They’re key to delivering better learning experiences

Empathy-driven learner personas will help you understand your audience groups in glorious detail so your design is fit for purpose. This is the basis of learner-centred design.

You probably have a good idea of your audience when you begin a new project. That’s a great start, but real data in the form of a well-researched learner persona will confirm your thoughts (or not!) and may give you some surprising insights.

Once you understand your learners’ worldview in this detail, you can create learning experiences that truly resonate.

They’ll help guide your learning design 

With personas in place, your team can focus on the learner experience from scoping right through to delivery. They’ll help you make key decisions along the way — ‘how would ‘Mary’ feel about that?’ — and avoid designing for the business instead of the learner.

They’ll help you personalise your training

If you need to deliver a personalised program, like pathways tailored to different levels of experience, developing a persona for each will help you deliver the right content to the right people.

They’ll give you the confidence that your program will deliver on its objectives

Learner personas are at the heart of good learning design. When you’ve done your homework like this, you’re much better placed to deliver something that will meet the business goals.

When to create your learner personas

For the best outcome, create them up front before you even look at the program design.

If you’re looking to change program content, they’re also great for getting buy-in to do that.

Our top 10 tips for empathy-driven personas

  1. Don’t guess, use real data from multiple sources

    If you write your personas without research, you’ll end up with stereotypes. Gather real data from any source you can find. Look for hard copy materials like surveys and ideally interview a few target audience members. If you’re an internal designer, follow conversations in relevant groups on your work social networks. 

  2. Get familiar with the role(s) you’re targeting

    If you can’t ask the learners about their role directly, ask for their job descriptions and look for contacts within the business who can share more detail.

  3. Keep your insights to employee and learner characteristics

    Don’t weigh your character down with demographics like ‘Kylie is a 35yr old mother of two from the Eastern suburbs’ unless it’s relevant to their role and/or the learning.

  4. Create as many learner personas as you need...

    Your personas should cover the typical audience segments for the program - even those who hate the thought of training! It’s common to have at least three.

  5. ...AND ones for key stakeholders

    If communication with the learner’s managers and direct reports is important to the success of the program, create personas for these key stakeholders too.

  6. Pick an image and a name for each persona

    This will make them more relatable and put a face to the character when using the persona to guide discussions.

  7. Make sure the personas are linked to the learning objective

    If you can’t link a persona’s problem or need to the program goals, you should consider if the personas are really driving the design. Or if you’re sticking to the design you had in mind and ignoring the learners’ needs.

  8. Use a tried and tested persona template

    This will make sure you gather all the background information you’ll need and don’t miss anything vital. Tailor your template to suit the organisation or outcomes required.

  9. Test your personas

    Circulate them back through the user group as a ‘litmus test’. Personas may be a generalisation but they should still be authentic and recognisable.

  10. Collaborate with your stakeholders

    Doing this before, during and after you create your personas will help you whip them into shape and get buy in.
Josh Humphries
16 December 2019 4 Min Read

How does this look in action?
Want a structured, consistent methodology for defining your learner personas, along with the rest of the goals, objectives and requirements for your learning programs? Check out our Learning Canvas.



Interested in how you can develop your own learner personas to increase eLearning engagement? The Learning Canvas Toolkit is for you.

Scope like a pro as you align your stakeholders and focus on your learners right from the start in this free download. 

Download the Learning Canvas Toolkit

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