The Persona in Learning Experience Design

You walk to the shop with a bad headache, but you’ve decided that you want to be your best self for Mrs Mckenzie who has owned the general goods business that is near to your house. You don’t want to trouble her with your complaints because she’s just recovering from the loss of her favourite pet gerbil named ‘Louie’, has a bad hip, and her grand-kids don’t come to visit her anymore because they all live abroad.

When you enter the store, Mrs McKenzie’s face lights up and she greets you with an enthusiastic hello, before asking you how you are. You say….

  1. I’m fine, Mrs Mckenzie. How are you?
  2. I’ve got a terrible headache and I don’t want to talk right now.
  3. I’ve got a terrible headache, but that’s okay because I think your life is probably more difficult so I don’t want to complain about it.
  4. Say nothing.
  5. Something else.

Whatever option you choose, you have a reason for doing so. And Mrs Mckenzie has her reasons for the way she greets you. She might be influenced by the way you interacted with her the last time you bought milk, or she might not – maybe her hip is feeling better and she had a phone call from her favourite niece.

So who are you in this situation?

Are you what you think you are?

Are you a different person because you chose a particular response when Mrs McKenzie asked how you were?

Are you what Mrs McKenzie thinks you are?

The easy answer here is that you’re a combination of all of these things. And you are a changeable beast depending on the situation at that point in time, because you are a human and you have learned to adapt to your environment and social networks. So each morning you wake up enter the world and present your Persona to the world and to Mrs Mckenzie.

In Jungian psychology a Persona is defined as:

“outward or social personality,” a Jungian psychology term, from Latin persona “person”.

A Persona is essentially an image that a person portrays to everyone around them.

In User Experience Design and in Design Thinking. and within Learning Experience Design,  Personas are archetypical users whose goals and characteristics represent the needs of a larger group of users‘.  To determine a Persona in UX, or Design Thinking, or in Learning Experience Design, the researcher gets down and dirty with their prospective users to find out what they are about. They then use that information to create a Persona which represents a sub-set of users that would (in an ideal scenario) represent a significant section of the overall user pool.

Here are a few examples from around the web.

Persona 1


Persona 2
Persona 3









It is not difficult to see why Personas would be of benefit to those designing software or a new product. They contain verifiable facts about a user like their age, their current needs and wants, their annoyances, their dreams, and their social situations.

Using Personas in Learning Design

However, I can see the utilisation of Personas in Learning Design to be problematic. Why? Because the people being used as the foundation of the Persona will, for the most part, be playing the part of a character in a play. And like some actors, they might not be very versed in the role they are playing.  Further, the people creating the Persona might be in the same predicament.  They might not ask the ‘right’ questions, and they most assuredly have unconscious biases that impact the way they craft their questions, thusly impacting the archetype’s answers, resulting in a grouping that isn’t really reflective of a ‘typical’ learner. And then using this Persona as a archetype for a range of other learners compounds the potential for a nonsensical script, with poorly acted scenes and an unbelievable and unwelcomed plot twist at the end.

Additionally, Personas in their nature are a representation of a group of users or in the case of a course, learners. One of the principles of learning design is placing the learner at the centre of the design process. At its core, this is student centered design. To create an effective course it should be acknowledged that the needs, wants and motivations of each learner is unique – and I might add, can change from day to day. It is all individual, all of the time. In a face to face environment, this is readily acknowledged, as teachers interact directly with their students to make assessments as to who might need more assistance to be able to achieve the learning goals, or who might require a more challenging activity if they are ahead of the curve. In online learning, the relationship between ‘teacher’ and student requires more attention, and craftier ways of engaging learners.

Does this mean Learning Designers shouldn’t use Personas to help create courses? No. Personas should be part of the ever expanding tool kit employed by Learning Designers. Like the folks at Penn State, who created multiple Personas for each user and learner group while designing courses, there are ways to be more inclusive and effective when utilising a Persona in learning design work.

Where I see a real benefit of their use is in branching scenarios, where through the design of multiple pathways, a number of different conclusions are reached. These scenarios can indicate divergent learner needs or interests, which could be captured during the course design by a cleverly created Persona. You know, kind of like the Discover your Persona, err Patronus, on Pottermore.