Understanding your students through personas and empathy maps

UX design

You’ve probably heard a lot lately about user experience (UX) design. But what is it, exactly, and how does it relate to online course design?

Simply put, UX design focuses on users and their needs. UX designers look at how users interact with a product or interface by first empathizing with them, then defining their needs, and finally brainstorming and testing solutions to meet those needs. Many of these same steps can also be applied to learning design.

Let’s look at the first of these: empathizing with your users. Have you ever asked yourself who your online students are and how you can design the most effective course to meet their needs? You can use several techniques to develop a more student-centered approach. We’ll go over two of these here.

Creating Personas

In UX design, personas are fictional users that represent a larger group of users and their goals, concerns, or needs. In education, this would involve creating several fictional learners who represent different types of students in your online classroom. 


Why would you want to take the time to create personas? First, they can help you create a more learner-centric course. The idea behind personas is that they help you identify patterns of behavior and humanize them. 

It is a lot easier to identify with a learner named David and his color blindness than it is to remember the percentage of your students with vision problems. When you’re choosing a color scheme for your course, you can think, Would David be able to distinguish these two colors? Personas help generate empathy for your learners.

Second, personas can help you plan for the needs of the widest possible group of learners. One persona won’t be enough to represent all of the diverse student needs in your class (you’ll likely need a minimum of 3). By creating several different personas, you’ll have the chance to understand and connect with a wider range of learners. Your personas will force you to get outside of yourself and consider perspectives other than your own. 

Finally, creating personas helps you target your course design as effectively as possible. Rather than designing for what you think your learners might need, you can take concrete steps to address the specific needs of your personas. Understanding  who you’re designing for can help you lock in on what is or isn’t necessary. Would your non-native English speaking persona, Ha-Yun, benefit from a text-heavy home page or a simple graphic and start button?

Conduct Research

So how do you get started? Your first step is to conduct research to understand your target audience and their behaviors, pain points, and motivations. Ideally, you would observe, interview, or survey your students to collect as much information as possible. This data would include basic demographic information, a description of how and when they typically interact with the course site, as well as their skill level, frustrations, and needs. The more data, the better! 

Keep in mind that poorly created personas based on little or no research won’t bring much value to your design process. You want to avoid generating personas based on stereotypes that don’t actually reflect your students.

Analyze Your Findings

Next you’ll need to analyze your research findings. You’ll be looking for patterns and themes in your data, like problems with course navigation, appearance, or layout. Does a significant portion of learners ask for a way to jump quickly to certain resources? That’s a pattern! List out the different trends and group them into clusters so you can start forming your personas.

Create Personas

To create each persona, you’ll first choose a name and add a headshot. (Your headshots can be photos or illustrations; the main point is to put a face on your character.) In addition, you’ll need to create details for your persona such as age, occupation, hometown, and marital status, as well as a description of their needs, goals, frustrations, skill level, or any other contextual or background information that will help you understand them better. 

Remember, you want your persona to feel like a real person. You might also consider printing out your personas and hanging them around your workspace so they’ll be within reach while you work on your online course. 

If you need help getting started, here’s a template created by Google for its UX Design course: UX Persona Template.

Now you’re ready to begin using your personas! Make them be team members in your design process by hanging them up around your workspace, or dig deeper and use them to create empathy maps.

Creating Empathy Maps

Once you have outlined who your learners might be by creating personas, you can utilize an empathy map that allows you to dive deeper by making it easier to understand their needs and expectations for their learning journey. Niels Floor from LXD.org has created an adaptable empathy map method which enables faculty and designers to create a clear idea of the outcome of a learning experience, and what your students need to achieve. 

By using our example student David, we can create a more detailed description about Who they are, How they feel, What they know, and the Positive and Negative aspects that would demotivate or enable them to learn successfully in the online classroom. 

While filling in the empathy map in a clockwise manner, remember to relate to each question in the way the learner might feel towards the learning experience and the desired outcomes. This allows faculty and designers to empathize with their students and their unique needs and avoid what might feel like an impersonal online course design.

In addition, empathy maps can offer a wide overview or a more detailed perspective of the learner at a specific point in the experience depending on how the map is filled out. It can also be done at any point in the design process when preparing or teaching a course. They can be as simple or in depth as the writer desires, and are fluid as people and their feelings change.

Create your own Empathy Map using LXD.org’s Empathy Map for Learners


Utilizing personas and empathy maps allows you to design a course in a more human-centered and goal oriented manner, catering the learning experiences to the unique individual needs of your students and enabling them to achieve the learning outcomes in a way that is suitable for them.

Additional resources


~ Missouri Online Media Design Team