Personas Activity 3 Ways: in person, live & online, and an asynchronous simulation

We had run the Personas role-play activity at live, in-person workshops before the pandemic arrived, and we didn’t want safety protocols to spoil our chance to offer one of our most successful professional development exercises. So our creative team went back to the drawing board to figure out how to run a role play online and remotely.

We’ve shared instructions for the three versions of the role-play Personas activity on our site: in person, live & online, and an asynchronous simulation.

Some background: The PLIX team started working on the Personas activity design while brainstorming future professional development workshops we might offer. One quote that stuck out to us in the early designs comes from the paper “Becoming Facilitators of Creative Computing in Out-of-School Settings” by Ricarose Roque and Rupal Jain:

There was not one role that defined a facilitator, but instead multiple entry points and pathways that built on facilitators’ backgrounds and interests. Their experience was a process of becoming — shifting roles, perspectives, and practices within the shared activity of facilitating creative computing experiences.

We wanted attendees of our professional development programs to leave having, among other things:

  • Assessed their skills, identified areas to improve on
  • Learned about the context of creative learning
  • Learned about PLIX in relation to creative learning
  • Discussed strategies to mitigate: imposter syndrome, fallacy of the expert
  • Practiced self-reflection
  • Practiced being comfortable with ambiguity
  • Learned tools/skills that aid in welcoming learning community members
  • Learned tools/skills that aid in supporting learning community members
  • Learned tools/skills that aid in guiding learning community members

This role play offered hands-on ways to achieve these goals.

Rachel Kisken and Alex Yixuan Xu developed the first prototype activity to create intentional facilitation learning moments that point to key tensions or principles in creative learning facilitation. After play testing it, they found themselves both recognizing the limitations of roleplay and its promise of being a workshop learning tool. In this first version, rather than using numbered personas, we named the roles: The Completer, The Scaredy Cat, The Go-Getter, The Confused, The Student. We later realized that these characterizations were unfair to the personas we described, and we let the descriptive text speak for itself.

In play-testing, those playing the facilitator discovered they wanted to give everyone full attention, something that would probably be impossible to emulate in an asynchronous version of the activity. While putting on a facilitator or participant hat is important, the activity works best when it is followed up with reflection prompts and questions—something acknowledged in the first designs but that we could fold into future versions of the experience, whether it is in-person, online, or asynchronously simulated.

Have you been a part of a Personas activity, in Akron or in one of our online workshops? What was your experience like?


More about the asynchronous version:

We began with a design challenge for ourselves—What would the Personas activity look like if done asynchronously?

Could we design something where there isn’t just one right answer? Could it be an experience that culminates in being able to see what others have answered, perhaps sparking conversation? After looking at a few different platforms, we were surprised to realize that Google Forms, of all things (!), would allow us to build a simple prototype of a scenario-based narrative form of the Personas activity, allowing free responses that would be collected for participants to review others’ answers when they were done.

We introduced the Patron Participant Persona Simulation as a new kind of element in the third week of the course (in contrast to the listening, reading, and making that began in and continued from the first week). The exercise was a time for our course participants to challenge their facilitation skills with a simulated workshop, pushing themselves to consider the situation and navigate it using our recommended facilitation techniques. We had no right or wrong answers in mind for any question. It was a chance to think through different scenarios and stretch your creative learning facilitation muscles. One can think of this as “Choose Your Own Adventure”, PLIX edition.

It begins:

Here’s a chance to exercise your facilitation techniques. Imagine that you are facilitating your first creative learning workshop. You have prepared examples and set up the room ideally. You’ve introduced the PLIX Paper Circuits activity to a roomful of patrons, framing your activity with a very evocative prompt. Everyone is busily working on their projects. Let’s get this party started!

For each of three personas—Speedy “D”, Stuck “T”, Focused “X”—we shared a description and ask the “facilitator” to pick a PLIX Facilitation Technique they might try with the patron. Then we ask, “What do you say to or do with the Patron? (How would you engage the Facilitation Technique you chose above?)”

The final scenario asks the exercise-participant to take the role of workshop-participant, much as most participants of the in-person Personas activity are in a participant—not a facilitator—role.

Now you have a chance to be the participant instead of the facilitator. You can write a scenario, too… Take a seat and choose a patron participant persona. Pick one of the following to match your mood or the mood of a patron you find especially challenging. Or choose “Patron π” if you want to make up your own persona!

You can read the creative statements our course participants provided to emulate three personas here.

Finally, participants reach the end of the simulation and get a link to see how other people have responded.

Here are some aggregated and anonymized results from the first 41 participants.

When addressing the first three personas, all the facilitation techniques were used. The two most popular facilitation techniques to engage were :partying_face: Celebrate the learning process, not just the finished product and :dancing_women: Encourage peer learning. The next most popular to use were :cyclone: Frame activities to encourage creative possibilities and :art: Curate a set of diverse example projects to inspire patrons. The final three, :hammer_and_pick: Don’t touch the tools!, :robot: Avoid technical jargon, and :basketball: Remember: Facilitation is a practice also were chosen nearly as much. You can see the distribution here, where the colors correspond to Stuck “T”, Speedy “D”, Focused “X”

This first version of the asynchronous version of the Personas activity was appreciated by our first role-players. One course participant said she appreciated that it was “very low pressure role playing…I’ve done role play in person, and it’s very intimidating even for people who do lead a lot of programs, because you’re on the stage, and you’re with your peers, and you’re trying to do it right, and you’re trying to learn… Once I realized, [there wasn’t] a right answer, it made that experience personal for me: ‘Oh, this is what I would use, and I don’t know if this is the right answer, but this is what I think would be the right answer. So it just got me thinking, versus, like, a test." Another course participant said it’s “definitely a keeper” and felt that it would be a good way to prepare for what one might do during the in-person role play. Another suggested we should find a way to give feedback on role-players’ answers, something we didn’t plan for. Of the 29 course survey respondents, about half said they loved the Personas Simulation, and another third liked it. But just as many people who loved or liked it didn’t try it! So we are hoping more of you will give it a spin.

**More about the online and live version: **
Role Play in Breakout Rooms on Zoom

In our original activity design we passed out physical cards randomly to people seated at tables. Each table had one or two people with each of eight personas. In the online world of Zoom-based meetings, how would we emulate the randomness of passing out cards when our professional development workshop went digital? That was our design challenge in November 2020 as we prepared to host a two-day, online workshop for about 90 library professionals.

We entertained a few different distribution/assignment methods. We could have, for example, sent an email before the workshop began, but we didn’t want people to have to dig around in their inboxes during the meeting or resend lost emails on the spot. Could participants follow complicated instructions about moving from breakout to breakout? That experience design struck us as non-ideal, as it would require a lot of rule-following (a terrible match to a workshop on creative learning!)

In the end, we decided that using breakout rooms would be the most reliable way to disseminate Persona cards. Katherine @katherine McConachie led the design of this workshop flow with input from the rest of the PLIX team.

Here’s what our 90 minutes looked like:

  • Introduction (15 minutes)
  • Breakout 1: Getting Your Persona (10 minutes)
  • Technical Interlude (5 minutes)
  • Breakout 2: Persona Activity (45 minutes)
  • Full Group Wrap-up/Reflection/Share-out in Main Room (15 minutes)

More behind-the-scenes detail about how to run this activity is here:

In addition to the PLIX core team, we were fortunate to be able to recruit five attendees to join our facilitation team without whom we would not have been able to pull this off: Blayne @bborden Borden (Lexington, KY), @Kris_Lachowski (Cuyahoga County, OH), Emily St. Germain (Cambridge, MA), Dave Fink @Dave (Michigan City, IN), and Allie Affinito @aaffinito (NYPL). These facilitators were “on their own” in the Breakout 1 to share the Personas roles, then they joined a group in Breakout 2, role-playing their Persona / handing over the activity to the workshop attendees who had volunteered to role-play co-facilitators as their Persona (identified at the end of Day 1). Near the end of the time, the role-playing co-facilitators wrapped up with reflection and share-outs, and then the facilitation team calls “and… scene!” in each room to talk about the Personas role-play in itself.

At the end of Day 1, we also persuaded 16 other attendees to volunteer to role-play as co-facilitators in the session on Day 2. Because everyone had registered with a unique Zoom ID, we were able to pre-assign each person two different breakout rooms for Day 2’s Personas sessions.

Nonetheless, the activity was well received: adopting a “fake identity” helped a few participants come out of their shell more than they felt comfortable with in Day 1. Others pointed to the Personas exercise as “really useful.”

There were a few clear options for improvement. Some participants asked for more in-depth discussion about facilitation. “What were the various personalities we were role-playing?” one wondered, so in future iterations we’ll spend more time revealing and talking about the roles, and perhaps have more direct suggestions for dealing with common problem situations faced by facilitators or ask how each character would have liked to have been helped.

It is all a bit “meta” and easy to get lost in the layers of the activity design. For example, there were three “wrap-ups”: First, the workshop attendees who volunteered to role-play as co-facilitators needed to wrap up the paper circuits activity they led, as if they were actually facilitating the activity. Then, the facilitation team member in each breakout room (the PLIX team plus our five extra team members) needed to wrap up the Personas activity as a thing itself: how it felt to try on those different roles, what people thought, etc. Finally, in the main room, we shared out to the whole group with one PLIX team member leading the conversation.