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Getting Personal in ISD: 3 Tips for Using Personas

Monday, April 13, 2020

As instructional designers (IDs), we have a growing toolkit to help people learn something new, improve performance, or maintain skills. And you’re likely wearing many hats: researcher, e-learning developer, audio engineer, graphic designer, and so forth. How about a global solution that isn’t focused only on the output and flips the approach to learner problems? Enter design thinking.

Design thinking is a simple concept that puts the user front and center. Everything is designed around their actual needs, not assumed needs or desired behavior. Design thinking can easily be applied into ID practices by using personas.

What Is a Persona?

A persona describes a target audience—in our case, the learner. This is the “who” part of the design. IDs collect a lot of data to align the performance problem with potential solutions. Let’s take this process one step further. Expand the research to understand the characteristics and pains of a learner and analyze their behavior in context. Some basic things that IDs can use to develop personas are problems, motivations, KSAs, and demographics.

Why Personas?

To me, it goes without saying: You’ve got to know your audience to provide solutions that have real value to their experience. A cornerstone of design thinking is empathy for the user. Personas help designers form a deep knowledge and understanding of who the audience is.

Here are a few questions that can help IDs dig into the user’s needs:

  • What is the problem? Why are they experiencing a problem?
  • How do they prefer to solve problems?
  • What does success look like for them?

I think preference is key here. While the design might be intuitive to some, it may not work for others. Designing a solution is one thing, but a solution that satisfies the learner’s needs and preferences is gold.

3 Ps for Task Analysis

Let’s put personas in a team development context. Team A has missed a number of iteration goals this quarter. As the ID, I’ll use interviews and observe Team A’s work in action. To organize the data collected, I’ll focus on three categories that will form the personas: problem, profession, and person.

Analyze the Problem
To begin constructing the persona, I’ll research and analyze symptoms and interactions of the problem. Then, I’ll ask myself if I’ve dug in enough or if I need to search a little further. IDs can save time here by drilling down on the real problem, without any assumptions. Here, I look for impediments to Team A’s goals and if there are constraints.


As the ID, I think interactions are essential to solving people problems. When Team A collaborates with customers, what does that look like? What does it look like when Team A collaborates with one another and support personnel? Design thinking calls this “behavior patterns.” I’ll use these patterns to connect the process and people performance.

Analyze the Profession
Job titles can get confusing since people have extra duties or are in matrixed teams, so as the ID, I’ll use roles. Which roles are on Team A? Which roles are working with Team A? Which roles are supporting Team A? Roles flatten the tasks associated with titles. Using the roles technique also describes the purpose and value to the team. For example: influence. How does role X influence those in and around Team A? How is role X influenced by those in and around Team A?

Analyze the Person
IDs use motivations, experiences, and demographics to construct personas. For me, I like focusing on motivations and mindset. What makes Team A do their best? Are members of Team A thinking with agility or are they just going through the motions to finish?

Diverse experience is critical to Team A’s performance. So, I’ll look at credentials and personal experiences that give them a different perspective. Admittedly, I don’t use demographics like age or gender unless they are essential to the outcomes.

The Best Customer Service

Personas are backed by the ID’s research data and personal interactions, eliminating the assumptions of generic learner profiles, aligning efforts with the people—your customers—who will benefit from the change. I’ve applied personas to solve performance problems as a consultant whether I’m engaging as an ID role, facilitator role, or manager role. Just as I approached Team A’s case, personas funnel into larger questions like “is it just the iteration goal Team A is missing?” Following the 3 Ps in this order helps me remain objective as I research the problem, the people involved, and potential solutions. Get to know your audience using personas and have fun growing your EQ with design thinking.

About the Author

Marc deGuzmán is a facilitator and consultant at Atlantic Management Group, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For more than six years, Marc has been helping people think and work with agility in IT, finance, and sales and marketing. He is an advocate for lightweight collaboration, holistic strategy, continuous learning, and freedom to play.

Marc received a MA in Instructional Systems Development from University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), as well as a BS in Business Administration from University of Maryland, University College (UMUC).

Learn more about Marc at

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