Explaining AleX NetLit: Fictional Personas & Online Learning

A picture of the fictional Alex NetLit
Alex NetLit

The Network Literacy Community of Practice (NetLit CoP) has received some questions about AleX NetLit, the fictional persona we created to help military family service professionals, Cooperative Extension professionals and others learn more about using online networks in their work.

We thought it might be helpful to explain how and why we came up with AleX NetLit.

Background on fictional personas

Fictional personas are representations of a major user group of a particular device, system or product. They can also be representations of a major group within an audience. The purpose of a persona is to get away from generalizations about a group of users and focus on the needs of a specific representative user.

Personas typically have names, pictures, and demographic details based on the larger audience’s demographics such as age, education, ethnicity, and family status. Usability.gov, a guide to developing usable websites, says personas can also include “the goals and tasks they are trying to complete using the site and their environment (i.e., physical, social, and technological).”

Using personas in website design and in other areas of user experience design (architecture, software development and product design) has become accepted practice. Personas are also used in marketing to consider “the goals, desires, and limitations of brand buyers.” (Wikipedia, Personas (marketing))

Inventing AleX NetLit

The NetLit CoP has three target audiences: service providers who work with military families, Cooperative Extension professionals, and the general public. As Extension professionals ourselves, we felt we had a pretty good understanding of the extension audience, and we have experience reaching out to the general public through our extension work.

However, most of us involved in the NetLit CoP had little or no understanding of the work of professionals who work with military families. We wanted to learn more about this audience and its needs. We also wanted to find a way to connect extension professionals with military family service professionals and these professionals with one another.

As we learned more about the demographics of military family service providers, AleX NetLit began to take form. AleX’s gender, age, and education were all taken from what we learned about military family service professionals. AleX isn’t every military family service professional, nor is she an “average” of them. She is a representative of the audience designed to reflect characteristics of the audience that allows the NetLit CoP to connect with them.

AleX is a 30-year-old divorced mother of two who works as a federal agency professional, providing educational information and other types of self-help to her clients. She uses, but has been wary of, social media tools like Facebook and Twitter. She is skeptical about using social media in her work, but she is starting to see their potential for helping her clients.

That brief profile helped the NetLit CoP begin to develop a plan for helping military family service professionals understand and use social media tools and online networks. Instead of finding ways to help a faceless group of varying demographics, experiences, and abilities, we could focus on finding ways to help AleX, a busy single parent looking for ways she can grow in her profession. That’s the purpose of a persona.

Making AleX Public

Most personas for user-experience design and marketing serve as internal tools that guide development of products and messages, but never see the light of day. (e.g., Matthew Johnson Program Staff Director, USDA, is a fictional persona created by the  U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS). You can read a portion of this persona at the bottom on the “Develop Personas” page on Usability.gov.)

We decided to take AleX public. We created a Twitter account for her and began writing blog posts addressed directly to her. Knowing how helpful AleX had been to us, we wondered how she might be able to help others.

AleX was made public in the hope that she would provide a persona military families service professionals and others could relate to. Let’s face it. Most of us in Cooperative Extension are used to being the expert, the educator. Try as we might, it’s difficult to avoid playing that role. AleX is intended to give people someone to connect with whose goal is not to teach them, but to learn with them.

The Debate

Trust, transparency and authenticity are important in building relationships in online networks. We debated whether launching AleX NetLit undermined those principles. The thought that AleX might be seen as an effort to trick people or a facade to hide behind definitely made us uncomfortable, but, at the risk of sounding like a self-help book, change doesn’t happen in your comfort zone.

We are making every effort to be sure people know AleX is a fictional persona. We intentionally gave her a name that was not typical. AleX’s Twitter bio clearly states she is a fictional creation of the NetLit CoP and links to our blog page explaining AleX and her purpose.

That’s not to say we have done everything right. We planned to send periodic tweets letting AleX’s Twitter followers know she is fictional, but we have not held to that plan. We also have not been clear about exactly who is tweeting on Alex’s behalf.

AleX’s Twitter followers will start seeing occasional reminders that she is a fictional persona. There will be information about who is tweeting for AleX in occasional tweets and in AleX’s Twitter bio.

AleX NetLit is an experiment. She is a new tool for learning in the changing knowledge and communication landscape. Will she make an impact? We’re not sure, but we will keep trying to use new and innovative tools to help people understand and harness the power of online networks.

What do you think?

Do you think that a persona like AleX NetLit could be an effective tool to help others learn as she learns?

Please share any feedback with us via the comments below, your social network of choice, or email.

Authors: The AleX NetLit Team – Anne Adrian (@aafromaa), Bob Bertsch (@ndbob),  Peg Boyles (@ethnobot), John Dorner (@jdorner), Molly Herndon (@MollyCHerndon), Stephen Judd (@sjudd), and Jim Langcuster (@extensionGuy)

One thought on “Explaining AleX NetLit: Fictional Personas & Online Learning

  1. I think what you have done with AleX is fantastic, and see tremendous advantage in reaching your target audiences through letting her speak for those audiences. While fictional, I suspect she carries as much reality in peoples’ minds as many other “real” people whom they might have met through social media, or have read about, or have used in the “old days” as “pen pals.” She is someone they can identify with, and to whom they might look for leadership at times. Yet, as long as they are continually reminded that she is fictional, I see no danger of deception or misleading people.

    I am reminded of another persona in my life: Jill–the Garmin GPS voice that I use. When we have been travelling, whether in the U.S. or in Europe, Jill has become another passenger in the car; one with whom we sometimes have conversations, even if Jill never hears us. Nevertheless, Jill’s involvement with our travels has made those trips much more pleasant and comforting. In the same way, AleX’s riding along with someone struggling with how to adopt social media or becoming network literate can make the journey much less frustrating and more fruitful. So, I say keep Alex alive–but get her a partner some day; she may be getting lonely.

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