How to use the PERSONAS model to create relevance in your online course

How To Use The Personas Model To Create Relevance In Your Online Course
Who are you developing for? Without a clear idea on who is going to be accessing your online course, how can you deliver an effective user experience? It’s not just a case of putting content together, but having a clear understanding of the user persona – who they are, their needs, goals, motivations and frustrations – and designing content that is going to be of benefit to those users.

Often we see learning materials, and courses being developed without user experience in mind. As a result, the levels of engagement and the retention of information falls down. The experience doesn’t have as much positive impact. So it’s really critical to have a clear understanding of who your users are to craft a learning experience that fits. It also will help when we start to look at the marketing and promotion of your courses.

User understanding is also about providing relevant and contextual content. Relevance is needed for both engagement but also in the retention of the information. People remember stories not facts. By building context into the course through the use of stories, people will retain the information easier. If people can’t see relevance in what they’re doing, then they’re going to struggle to apply that knowledge later. People will be engaged as well when they can see the WIIFM “what’s in it for me”. They get this through the context.

So what do we look at? To make this process easier we have developed our PERSONAS Model, as a way to provide people with a framework to look at the elements that are required for user understanding. This includes looking at a basic profile, developing empathy for the user, exploring their reasons (or motivations), their skills, knowledge and experiences, obstacles to learning, their needs, and how they access technology.

In the persona development process we are not trying to capture the key characteristics of every possible user, rather the two or three key stereotypical groups or personas of people that you’re going to be working with. You may also develop two or three personas as part of the process.

Personas Model Infographic


The first step is developing a profile for that persona. This starts with looking at the general age range of that persona group. Now, I don’t believe in designing for generational differences. I believe putting people into different generational buckets, is akin to comparing people based on the color of their skin. But there are still certain characteristics of younger people compared to an older person. Generally, this would be around their life experiences that they would have had, which can impact on their learning process and what information they need.

It also involves looking at characteristics including gender, occupation, family and location.

Are the users predominantly male or female? Are they in management or a business owner? Do they have family (and what experiences might they have had related to this)? Are they located in your local areas, in your country or overseas? If they are overseas, what impact does this have on factors such as language and literacy as well as internet capabilities?


The second step is to develop an empathy map. This is an opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of the user. It provides an opportunity to create a learning experience that meets where the learner is at. It involves considering what the learner is thinking or feeling, what they are seeing, hearing and doing.

Often we see at this point that multiple personas get created. One cohort may be feeling nervous or apprehensive, while another may be feeling excited. As a result, the experiences we develop may vary and further elements of the PERSONAS model may be different based on the empathy map.


The third part of the persona model is looking at the reason. What is the reason for people actually engaging in your course? What is the problem that you’re solving for them? Why are their motivations for wanting to do your course? If you cannot understand what their motivations are, you are going to find it very hard to design an experience that’s going to tap into that.

Also, think about what their goals are. What are they hoping to achieve? Again, if you are designing and delivering a learning experience that is not aligned to those goals, then, obviously, you’re going to have some issues around the design and delivery of that program.

Skills, knowledge and experience

The next part is to look at their skills, knowledge and experience. One of the key adult learning principles is that adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences. You need to consider these experiences to allow the learners to connect their past experiences with current knowledge and activities. Consider how you will relate the sum of the learners experience to the current learning experiences.

Understanding the skills, knowledge and experiences also provides a benchmark for where to start delivery of the content. Without considering this aspect you run the risk of delivery content that is too high level, and confusing and losing the learners. Alternatively, you may deliver the learning at too low a level and demotivate the learners.

It is also an opportunity to consider what the learners ideal learning experience is, and considering how this aligns to what you have developed as part of your strategy.


The fifth step in the model is to consider the obstacles or challenges that the learners face.

Consider what obstacles they are facing? What are some of the barriers to change? How can you overcome these barriers? What are the frustrations that they may be having? What are their frustrations in what they’re doing? Why are they coming to What is the wrong thinking?

Also, consider any roadblocks that they may have towards learning. This could be related to language or literacy. It could also be because of preconceived notions and wrong thinking.


Step six explores the learners needs. This includes both the rational and emotional needs.

As much as we might want to believe the majority of our decisions and actions are rational, the reality is that they are emotional driven by our lizard brain. The lizard brain controls our subconscious and research suggests that more than 95% of our behaviour is subconscious. For this reason we need to trigger emotions to change behaviour. Therefore, we need to consider the emotional and rational needs of our persona in designing the learning experience.

Access to technology

Step seven considers how the learners access technology. In this part we consider four questions:

  • How do they most commonly access information? Via desktop. Laptop or mobile device?
  • What is their preferred method of communication? Email. Phone, skype, Whatsapp, text or in-person?
  • Where are they social? An important question to consider if trying to build an online community. Is it Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram or some other social media channel?
  • What is their proficiency level with technology?


The final step is one that is left until a bit later. It is a step to be taken when you start to develop the solution and create the learning experience. At this time you need to revisit the persona you have created and consider it against the solution that you have created.

Key questions to ask include:

  • How does the problem you solve relate to their goals?
  • How does the solution connect with their needs (both rational and emotional)?
  • How does the solution build on their skills/knowledge/experience?
  • How does the solution connect with their access to technology?

If you want some support with creating the persona for your next course, click here to download our PERSONAS template.

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Superb Learning
The modern entrepreneur is shifting to become an ‘edupreneur’ – providing an educational and entrepreneurial income generating business, driven by visibility, scalability and profitability. With more edupreneurs delivering online learning programs than ever before, the online education market is expected to reach $325 billion by 2025.

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