5 Cool Ways to Use Characters to Engage and Connect with Learners

Do you use characters in your e-learning projects? If not, you’re missing out on an easy and effective way to build engagement with learners.

Using characters for e-learning isn’t just about perking up content. Research points to the fact that our brains are hardwired for making emotional connections, and that building emotional connections leads to deeper understanding. And characters are one powerful way to do just that.

Adding characters in your projects also provides more context to learning content, and lets folks explore ambiguity, choice, and consequences. It expands the creative possibilities for grabbing (and keeping) learners’ attention.

So if you’re looking for some ways to use characters to engage and connect with people, I’ve got five cool ideas you can add to your list.

#1: Give Your Course a Host

Struggling to get buy-in for using characters in your e-learning projects? If so, you may want to try incorporating a presenter or host. This approach is often a safe way to start pushing the creative envelope since it harkens back to an instructor/student model of learning.

A presenter gives your content more presence and voice, while also helping to personalize the learning experience. Although it’s a tried and true engagement technique, effectively adding a host does take a little more design work. You’ll want to make the character’s presence feel integrated and purposeful, rather than decorative.

For some inspiration for applying this idea to your own projects, check out this nice example from Allison Nederveld.

#2: Create Scenario-Based Learning

Scenario-based learning is a favorite engagement strategy for many designers. That’s because well-designed scenarios let learners explore the ambiguities of day-to-day interactions and experience the outcomes of their choices in a safe way.  

Until recently, one of the challenges of using this approach was finding character images: the poses, perspectives, and expressions needed to create a really engaging scenario. Stock photo sites are costly, and hunting down all of the right poses is time-consuming.

But, thankfully, e-learning development solutions like Articulate 360 offer tons of built-in, drop-and-go character packs designed to give you flexibility with many different postures, expressions and poses, as well as varied representations of gender, ethnicity, and background.

The Articulate 360 Content Library offers more than 100,000 combinations of photographic and illustrated characters, expressions and poses. You can browse Content Library characters and poses to get a sense of what’s available. Plus, the library’s growing all the time. That’s a lot of scenario-building goodness right there!

For one clever take on using characters in scenario-based learning, check out this great example from Nicole Legault.

#3: Let Learners Pick an Avatar

If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of creating a more game-like e-learning experience, one of the approaches you may have considered is using an avatar.

Using a character as an avatar—i.e. an icon or game piece representing the learner as they progress—can be a fun way to invite learners to embody different personas and explore different outcomes of their choices. It puts them right in the course environment and strengthens their personal connection with the content.

Want to see how it’s done? Nicole also created this easy-to-follow how-to article and video that walks through one way to let learners choose an avatar.

#4: Brand Your Course with a Spokesperson

If you’ve ever designed e-learning as part of a larger program rollout or initiative, you may have entertained the idea of giving your work a branded look and feel. Branding your initiative with a spokesperson is the perfect opportunity to put characters to work for you!

For example, imagine rolling out a course series focused on sales skills. Each course stars a different character faced with a common sales challenge. Wouldn’t it be cool to make those characters into spokespeople for the different behaviors you’re trying to reinforce? Imagine carrying their images to all of the supporting tools, job aids, workbooks, and websites you’ll create as part of this initiative.

This allows you to refer back to lessons learned from the course, refresh learner’s memories, and make a virtual character into something more tangible: a representation of the values and lessons the learners have picked up.

#5: Take a Storytelling Approach

Think for a moment about one of your all-time favorite books. I’ll bet one of the first things that came to your mind was a character from that story. That’s because characters—their background, personalities, challenges, actions, and consequences—all serve to drive the story’s plot. That’s what keeps us flipping pages long after we should’ve gone to sleep!

Just like well-developed characters make reading a fun and absorbing experience, well-developed e-learning characters give learners a way to emotionally engage with content and to see information in a more meaningful context.

With a large assortment of poses and expressions, you have tremendous flexibility to depict a character’s changing feelings or reactions to events in your story. This, in turn, can really help drive home key messages from your content—and spark a level of emotional connection that keeps learners engaged in the story.

More Resources

Of course there are countless ways to put characters to work in your projects. Here are a few related articles and examples which might whet your appetite for more character-driven design.

Are you doing something totally cool and innovative with characters? If so, tell us about it by leaving a comment below.

Want to try something you learned here, but don't have Articulate software? Start a free 60-day trial of Articulate 360, and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.

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