Building Learner Personas for Instructional Design Effectiveness

Julia Huprich, Ph.D.
5 min readJul 23, 2019


Credit: Sarah Pflug at Burst

In the worlds of user experience research, web development, and marketing, personas have been used extensively for decades to inform design decisions and help craft messages that resonate with audiences. It’s time for the learning and development field to catch up! This article will give you an introduction to the topic of personas, the benefits of using them, the method of building learner personas, and a few tips on how you can leverage personas to enhance your training programs. Let’s get started!

What’s a Persona?

A persona is a fictional character built that models actual users. It’s not a real person; however, it’s built on common characteristics that your learners share. Personas are built to represent large portions of your user base — in this case, your learners. Who are they? What do they like? What motivates them? What frustrates them? Do they use technology? What are their learning goals? Why are they using your system? Personas can answer all of these questions and more, helping you to make decisions about what kind of training to build, what content to cover, and what format to use.

Personas can take a number of different formats; they don’t have to be fancy. Here are a couple of examples:

This is an example of a student persona. Source: Oregon State University
This is an example of a general persona generated by Fake Crow, which creates tools you can use to build your own personas.

Building Personas

There are a lot of ways to create personas, but we’ll share with you one that’s based on a 10-step process from Dr. Lene Nielsen.

  1. Gather quantitative user data. How many are there? What do they do in the learning management system (LMS)? What activities are they consuming? What topics or categories do they like? You can generally answer these questions by running a report in your LMS.
  2. Gather qualitative user data. When possible, conduct focus groups, individual interviews, and surveys. Ask your users questions. Who are they? What do they want to accomplish? What information are they looking for?
  3. Look for themes in the data and group your users together based on these themes. Where are some of your larger groups? Maybe a large percentage of your users reported that they only access the LMS because they’re required to by Human Resources to take a compliance course. That’s helpful information that you can use to build your persona. Or maybe you have a large group of users who are like me — they love to learn new things and make it a part of their daily lives. Maybe they like to learn in a classroom. Maybe they hate watching TED Talks. What are some strands of data that you’re finding as you talk to your users?
  4. Construct your persona using these themes you’ve identified. Then, start to flesh out the persona you’re working on. You can use a form, like this one from Hubspot (it’s designed for marketing, but I think it’s helpful for learning as well). Develop a well-rounded character that’s not based on an actual person or stereotype. Give that persona a name and a picture. You’ll end up with something like the example below.
Meet Jim. This is an example of a persona I came up with.

Repeat the exercise. Come up with a collection of personas. Your cast of characters should be as diversified, in every way possible, as the people you’re building training content for.

So, you’re done, right? Almost. Next, you’ll want to validate your personas. Ask people to comment on each one— have they met someone like this? Can they see this as a real person? What’s missing?

Now that you have your personas… Let’s dive into using them to create learning content that resonates.

Using Your Personas

In order to use your personas, you’ll want to either create learning-based scenarios or leverage your personas when you’re making real-world decisions about your learning and development programs. Let’s use Jim (from the persona above) as an example. If we were creating a leadership training program, what would we want to take into consideration for him? I can think of a few things:

  • Incorporate podcasts to help entertain him on his walks with the dogs
  • Since he finds a lot of content to be outdated, curate current, short, applied research articles to enforce different principles; eliminate long, outdated, theoretical articles
  • He also finds a lot of training content irrelevant. Increase the relevancy for him by relying on case studies where he can apply his knowledge and experience

What other recommendations would you have if you were developing a leadership training program with Jim in mind?

Of course, your leadership training program will have more than just one participant… you’ll want to consider all of your personas to ensure that your training will meet the needs of all of your participants. You won’t be able to make everyone happy, but by using these different personas, you can create a varied learning experience that takes many different likes, dislikes, goals, and motivations in mind.

Again, repeat this exercise with different instructional design scenarios. What if you were charged with developing a sexual harassment training class for Human Resources? What would Jim want to see in that class? What training modalities would work best for him? Again, make sure you’re considering all of the personas you’ve developed. Each time you build something, think about your personas. Keep those profiles handy!

Wrapping Up

Building personas can be time-consuming, and it’s not easy. I do want to echo the words of Connie Malamed here and recommend that you not fall into any stereotype traps — stereotypes can save you time but you end up creating flawed personas, which don’t help.

Building personas doesn’t have to be arduous, though. Have some fun with this! Be creative. Develop your characters. “Talk” to them the next time you’re developing learning content. Who are they? What do they like? What would they enjoy? We believe that building personas is an important exercise in ensuring that your training isn’t one-dimensional and serves the needs of your diverse audience.


Here are a few additional resources to get you started on your journey to building learning personas:



Julia Huprich, Ph.D.

Champion for lifelong learning. Former librarian. Content curator.