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ATD Blog

It’s Not Just One Target Audience

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

“Who are we designing for?” That’s traditionally one of the first questions asked by L&D when starting a training project. Typically, there’s just one answer, and it sounds something like this: all managers, or IT employees using the XYZ program, or customer-facing employees. In other words, it’s a description of the one target audience. Once we have that single target learner group definition, we design one training solution to cover the needs of this monolithic target.

This approach is not working for modern learners.

Because modern learners work in an ever-changing environment and must use a wide range of resources to get the answers they need, they want and need L&D to offer customized learning. Rather than a one-size-fits-all e-learning course or face-to-face class, modern learners expect to be able to select, or even create, their own personal learning path—with ease, searchability, and accessibility.

Here’s what doesn’t work:

  • All modern learners do not want the same type of training. They are context-driven.
  • All modern learners do not just want technology-driven training. They want any delivery medium that works for their needs.
  • All modern learners do not belong in the Millennial generation. They come from all generations, with diverse backgrounds.

Thanks to technology, L&D can offer multiple learning assets tailored to various groups of learners. For instance, one method is to provide smaller learning assets—bite-size chunks of online learning, how-to videos, or shorter classes bookended by self-study prerequisite learning and post-class learning tools. While this approach may be a step in the right direction, it still is not hitting the mark for most modern learners.

Enter Learner Personas

L&D practitioners need to learn how to identify key subgroups within the larger target audience and then collect or create the right array of learning assets to meet the learning needs. What’s more, they must go beyond segmenting learner groups by the traditional criteria of age, experience, education, language, job role, and so forth. Instead, the future of L&D lies in building learner personas.

In our Learning Cluster Design model for modernizing L&D (see LearnNow: Designing for the Modern Learner), an essential action is to uncover key learner-to-learner differences, and design learning assets that target their needs and preferences.


Asking a different set of questions can help designers uncover those learner-to-learner differences. Understanding the differences can help L&D create multiple learning assets that present tailored, effective learning experiences for each persona for a given training topic. Here’s a sample set of questions to use when building learner personas:

  • How do their skills manifest in their job? Are they behind a desk? Are they expected to be highly relational? This positions us to understand what and how learning assets could mimic the job.
  • What is day-to-day life like in their job? This positions us to make learning assets convenient and accessible. For example, designing a classroom training for manufacturing line employees who struggle with having off-the-floor time is not as effective as bite-size or just-in-time learning made available on the devices they use on the floor already.
  • What is their culture? We need to make sure to include nuances for demographics. For example, maybe learners come from different regions that have different communication styles; in some regions, guidelines and frameworks for peer-to-peer coaching as a learning asset might be more effective than manager-employee coaching.
  • What are their go-tos for learning? The table below can provide insights.
When you need to learn something for work or home, what do you do?

At Home
At Work
Would Like at Work
Find a class

Find someone who might know

Seek out an expert

Find a book to read or study

Do an online search

Search for videos on the topic

Something else (specify)

The best source for answers to these questions is the learners themselves and the people who most witness the learner’s new capabilities. Now, with a deeper understanding of the learner-to-learner differences, look for patterns and groupings. Find the most common three or four groupings. A description of each large group of learners forms your learner personas.

It’s helpful to name these personas. One Fortune 100 beverage company does just that: They have identified dozens of standard learner personas, complete with names and detailed descriptions, that L&D uses across the board for learning design.

Now, instead of designing for new and experienced managers, we can design for:

  • Chris, the new manager
  • Elena, the experienced manager
  • John, the old-style manager.

The learner persona goes much deeper than the name itself indicates. The persona description guides L&D designers as they work to meet the differing learner needs and learning preferences. Here’s a sample description of these three personas:

  • Chris, the new manager is typically under 35 years old, loves to text and chat online, is highly motivated to be good at this new job, likes to study at home after the kids are in bed and when employees aren’t watching. (Note: see Cho, the new manager if training is for Asia.)
  • Elena, the experienced manager has a cadre of peers whom she trusts to talk over managerial issues (social learning). Her plate is full with both managing her staff and her own personal work projects. She likes to learn in the moment on new computer technologies, and is interested in the big picture that will help her succeed when promoted to the next level.
  • John the old-style manager has succeeded at getting the job done for a decade without complaint. He’s not interested in changing. He is willing to go to classes where he can share his stories and experiences with others during group activities.

In the past, we might not have had an efficient way to tailor our offerings to different learning subgroups within our target audience. Today, we do, and the future of L&D depends on it. It’s our engine for providing relevant training that matters!

Want to learn more? Join us for LearnNow: Designing for the Modern Learner. During this workshop, you'll apply a proprietary learning cluster overlays approach to modernize a short course from your workplace and design a learning cluster to meet a specific need in your workplace.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear about your experiences and opinions in the comments below on the use of learner personas. Here are a few starter questions:

  • Could your organization design multiple learning assets to meet differing learner needs? If not, what’s the barrier? If you’ve already done it, please share your story.
  • How do you think learners will respond if given a choice on how to learn?
About the Author

Crystal Kadakia is a two-time TEDx speaker, organizational consultant, and best-selling author, known for transforming the toughest workplace changes into exciting possibilities for our digital world. As a consultant, she brings organizations into the digital age, reimagining people strategies with clients in areas such as career development, learning culture, inclusion, leadership development, and employee engagement. Past clients include General Mills, Southern Company,, Sierra Club, and other organizations.

She is the co-creator of the Learning Cluster Design model and the co-author of the related book, Designing for Modern Learning: Beyond ADDIE and SAM (ATD Press, 2020). This model empowers the revolution of the training industry for our Digital Age by showing L&D how to design a set of multiple learning assets, available across the flow of work, to deliver a performance goal on the job.

About the Author

Lisa M.D. Owens is a learning expert who combines her engineering mindset with a deep interest in instructional design and learning sciences to create training that moves business forward. In 2016, Lisa and Crystal Kadakia began researching issues facing L&D in this modern age to discover the next step in the L&D industry’s evolution beyond blended learning. This led to a highly rated ATD LearnNOW program, which then inspired the book they co-authored for ATD Press, Designing for Modern Learning: Beyond ADDIE and SAM. Lisa also co-authored the ATD Press book <em>Leaders as Teachers Action Guide , which is based on her experiences as global training leader at Procter & Gamble.

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