In my first year studying Industrial Design at University, we were given a cautionary tale about the cost of not understanding who we were designing for. Meet the “biggest disaster in innovation”, the Sinclair C5:

Sinclair C5

In 1988, the Sinclair C5 went from drawing board to prototype without any market research. Driven only by the founder’s endless optimism rather than by what the public needed, it sold only 5,000 of the 17,000 manufactured. The company went into receivership just few months after the launch.

Had there been any real thought given to who might have used it, any empathy at all for what they might actually need, this “notorious example of failure” could have been easily avoided. My lecturer’s final slide on User-Centered Design read “know thy user,” and this tenet has stayed with me ever since, through everything I’ve designed. When I design Learning Experiences, the first questions I ask are, “Who is the Student I am designing for?” and “How can I feel empathy for what they need?”

Building off Personas

The first practical tool for building empathy in the design process was introduced by Alan Cooper in 1998, in his bestseller The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. Personas, as he called them, became a staple in design deliverables, after their effectiveness was proven project after project.

They’ve gone through various iterations since then, but their purpose has remained consistent. With details such as names, ages, competencies, and brief back stories, personas act as a constant reference of the different types of people you are designing for. As an example, a traditional approach to a persona for a student might look something like this:

Learner Persona

While this traditional type of persona is great for creating surface-level empathy for someone, a persona needs to feel realistic in order to serve as a useful reference to the designer. It’s easy to include too much information without giving thought to the overarching structure. Personas are a great start, but to make them a more effective tool for creating empathy, we need to include more about the Learner’s context.

Understand the Learner’s context

David Kelley, founder of the Stanford Design School Stanford Design School and IDEO — both world leaders of human-centered design practices—offers Empathy Maps as a way to help round out the picture of what our Learners might need. These questions help shift our mindset to who our Learners are, and they provide great insight into what you can create that will help inform the learning design process. The questions are broken down into four categories:

  1. Says - What are some quotes your Learner’s have said?
  2. Does - What actions and behaviours have you noticed?
  3. Thinks - What might your Learners be thinking?
  4. Feels - What emotions might your Learners be feeling?

Even just spending a few minutes answering these questions will give us a clearer, more realistic picture of our Learner than we had with traditional personas. Applying these questions to our previous example might look something like this:

Learner Empathy Map

Design for the extremes

Of course you can’t create personas and empathy maps for everyone in the class, and you also don’t need to. Generally speaking, 3-5 will capture the majority of Learners, but you should be conscious of what’s best for your Learning Design project. Too few and you’re probably generalizing the traits too much and losing out on valuable details. Too many and you’re casting too wide a net, and you will lose the ability to produce an effective learning experience. Generally speaking, all Learners will fall somewhere on the spectrum between struggling to understand and struggling to stay engaged:

Learner Spectrum

By designing your learning experience to address these extremes, you’re able to focus on your most at-risk Learners. Although there is no ‘average’ student, creating a few empathy maps for the Learners that fall within these extremes will result in a better Learning Experience for everyone in the class.

We can’t personalize learning in any meaningful way without having empathy for our learners. Personas and Empathy Maps are simple, practical ways to build this understanding into our projects, and they greatly benefit our ability to design effective Learning Experiences. Reference throughout your Learning Design process to put yourself in the shoes of your Learners, and don’t let your project be the next Sinclair C5.

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