Zombie Walk Montreal — Flickr image cc license user mateeas

Why zombies are eating your course design

The use of personas is becoming more prevalent in learning design. Institutions and learning organisations are beginning to see that better course design happens when that design is done in a combined team with academic expertise, learning design and technology skills. With that changing practice comes a need for those design teams to have a shared understanding of who their learners are and what those learners need. And so we’ve seen a rise in the use of personas in learning design projects.

This is great as personas can be an integral and purposeful part of the learning experience design process. They can also lead to a zombie apocalypse that eats your course design.

If you’ve designed a course with a subject matter expert, you’ve probably asked them questions like: “What will your students think of this?” or “How do they react to x?” And as you’ve gone about your learning design, you’ll rely on your intuition and experience of what students like and how they behave. This can be misleading. You’ll often find yourself designing for this sample student that lives in your head, or in your subject matter expert’s head. For me this sample student has often been a close approximation of me as student, if slightly more organised than I actually was. This sample student that lives inside someone’s head? That is the zombie persona in your project.

Why are zombie personas so dangerous to your learning design project?

Tom Allison, a UX designer and information architect catalogued some of the dangers in his presentation UX in the Real World: There’s no such thing as “No Persona”. I’ll expand on them here.

  • The zombies are not really alive to your project as they live in people’s heads. Without clear articulation, you and your team members may all be working to different requirements,
  • Without articulation and bringing them out into the light, it can be hard to kill these zombies. So misunderstandings can persist in your project over time and cause frustration or a breakdown in collaboration,
  • Sometimes the zombies in people’s heads are very very dumb, and so you end up trying to design a course that has to fix everything and be ready for every eventuality. A silver bullet course that will always be out of reach.
  • Not knowing our real learners can mean we spend time developing activities or resources that never get used
  • Even when you and your team go through the paper exercise of finding a template and filling it out, this paper zombie will still be made up out of assumptions and therefore not a good basis for your course design.

What about your personas?

So if you and your team are creating personas, ask yourself, have they been informed by any of the following things?

  • Field observations in classrooms, lecture halls or online webinars,
  • Interviews with students in the existing course or similar courses,
  • A conversation with your marketing or customer experience team about the user research they can make available,
  • A conversation with your friendly librarians about what they know about your learners. (It is widely know that librarians all have black belts in knowing-our-learners.)
  • The learning analytics for your course and similar courses,
  • Discoverable demographic data about your cohort,
  • Secondary research about your target group of learners,
  • Any of the other research and analysis methods that go in to creating personas.

If so, then you’ve understood the Power of Personas as described here by Indi Young.

If not, then you probably haven’t created personas. You’ve dug up a bunch of zombies and set them loose on your project and they are wreaking havoc.

PS If you want to learn more about understanding your users from Indi Young, she will be speaking at the online LX Conference in May 2017. Go to www.lxconf.co to find out more.

This story was first published at our blog at www.lxdesign.co