Have you ever used characters in e-learning courses? Odds are you have. Characters are an easy way to add a “human touch” that draws learners into your online courses. They’re typically used as avatars or guides who walk you through the e-learning module, explaining things along the way and pointing out important information. E-learning developers also often employ characters to act out scenarios, such as a sales or customer service interaction between an employee and a customer.

With so many options—male or female? illustrated or photographic? casual or formal?—when the time comes to select characters for your content, it’s important to make a thoughtful decision and not just a random selection. Tools like Articulate 360’s Content Library have so many character choices available (think hundreds of photographic and illustrated characters, all available in 100+ poses) that it can feel like a big decision. So the next time you need to choose characters for your e-learning courses, consider the following tips.

Complete an Audience Analysis

If you use an instructional design approach for creating your e-learning content, it’s likely you’ve already done an up-front audience analysis in which you’ve asked your stakeholders questions about the learners. (For more specific information about audience analysis, read this article: How to Do an E-Learning Audience Analysis.) You can use the information you’ve gathered in your audience analysis to help you select the right characters for your courses.

The type of information you want to gather about your learners that will help you select your characters includes:

  • Are the learners mostly male/female?
  • What is the average age?
  • What is the breakdown of their cultural backgrounds?
  • Do they wear a uniform or follow a workplace dress code?

Having the answers to these questions will help you select characters that are more meaningful and relatable to your learner. For example, if you’re building an e-learning module for a retail store that sells trendy clothing for young women and your average learner/employee is a sixteen- to twenty-five-year-old female, you likely wouldn’t select an older male character wearing a three-piece suit to make an appearance in your course. On the other hand, if you’re building a serious-toned leadership skills course for senior lawyers in a global firm, the fifty-year-old character in a suit will probably fit right in.

Talk to Your SMEs

When building e-learning courses, you sometimes have to incorporate characters that represent people outside of your target learners. As an example, say you’re building an e-learning module with a scenario between an employee and a customer. In this case, how do you select a character for your customer that’s realistic and authentic to learners? Your best bet is to talk with your Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). They are the experts for a reason, and should be able to give you a detailed profile on the typical customer. You’ll want to ask some of the very same questions you asked about your learners during your audience analysis:

  • Is the average customer mostly male/female?
  • What is the average age of a customer?
  • Does the average customer have any important characteristics or traits?

Depending on your subject matter, you might have other specific questions you want to ask your SME. Having answers to these questions will help you choose a more meaningful and relevant character.

Consider the Subject Matter & Stakeholders

The nature of the course content will help you decide which characters work best for the materials, as well as whether you should choose illustrated or photographic characters. Fun, playful, and whimsical content could easily use illustrated characters, whereas something more serious and formal might demand photographic characters. Always consider the tone and topic when making your character selections.

Your stakeholders might also have strong opinions on this matter, so it can be a good idea to survey them up-front or present them with a variety of characters and ask for their feedback. Stakeholders can also hold strong opinions about what characters should be wearing / not wearing, so it’s a good idea to run that by them to avoid issues down the road—it can be a major time-sink to replace a character on every slide because the goggles or nametag look wrong.

Don't Ignore Color Schemes

Another thing to consider when you’re choosing your characters: how will this character look against your background and course color scheme? If you’re working with rigid branding guidelines and characters in uniform, you might not have a whole lot of choice in the matter.

In many cases, however, you have more freedom to choose the characters you want for your content. Accordingly, consider how well the character’s clothing/accessories match your course’s color scheme. Choosing a character that complements the rest of your course will make a more aesthetically pleasing and cohesive end product. Notice in the image below how the nurse’s scrubs perfectly match the blue accent color of the course.

Let the Learner Choose

Instead of deciding for the learners which characters will resonate, why not just give them the choice to select their own character? This is easily done in most e-learning authoring tools. When the course or scenario starts, give the learner a mix of options (including both male and female) and let them make a selection. This is good for a few reasons: it gives learners a more personalized experience by letting them choose which character they prefer, and requires them to engage with the content and make a choice.

Following these five tips should help you make a decision about which characters to include in your upcoming courses. Do you have any tips of your own that you follow or take into consideration? Any favorite characters that you love to use? Let me know in the comments below.

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