Creating Empathy with Learner Personas


edX is an online learning platform that provides 7 million+ learners monthly access to 2500+ courses from today’s top institutions and universities. After joining in March 2020, it became clear that edX employees were unsure who their customers were how and how they differed across the companies various product offerings.


I put together a cross functional team called the Audience Insights Guild that included 8 stakeholders from teams across the organization (product, UX, marketing, learner enablement and engineering). Participation was completely voluntary, and the group met synchronously on a weekly basis and collaborated virtually.

During initial brainstorming discussions, the group discussed our core vision and goals for the team.


To understand and apply our learners behaviors, goals, frustrations. We also wanted to research, socialize, educate and inform all of our teams on the differences, similarities and expectations for each of our core product lines.

– Understand who our customers were
– Create artifacts so the company understands who are customers are
– Centralize and organize all research data
– Create a playbook that is lightweight and flexible
– Pilot a cross functional approach to working
– Positively influence the company

Craft assumptions based journey maps to inform discovery

The team chose to limit our scope to on the MicroMasters product line since it was the highest revenue generator for the company. We identified 4 high-level phases that we thought MicroMasters learners went through during their learning journey:

  • Identification of learning need
  • Discovery of learning content
  • Commitment/sign up to engage with content
  • Completion of learning content

Conduct a data review

After our ideation sessions, team members were asked to review previous research (surveys, user feedback, etc) from their domain of expertise and bring back 2 lists that consisted of:

  • What we were confident about in the MicroMasters learners journey
  • What we needed to learn more about for the MicroMasters learners journey

These two lists were used as an input into a team brainstorming discussion where we put together a list of research questions about our customers.

Craft key hypotheses and assumptions

With the assumptions based journey map and high level questions, we created a list of hypotheses and research questions for our study.

Learner Interviews

Armed with our core research questions and hypotheses, the team conducted interviews with MicroMasters learners. During the interview sessions, the team co-created experience maps with learners as they described their learning journeys with edX. 


I led the group in collaborative brainstorming sessions where we synthesized our findings from the MicroMasters interviews. I also created a number of artifacts including: synthesis presentations, highlight reel videos, learning journey maps, and opportunities list pertaining to the product line area.

Below are highlights of key insights learned during the MicroMasters study.

History Repeating Itself

Based on what the team learned during the MicroMasters study, we ended up replicating our discovery approach for the remainder of edX’s core B2C and B2B product lines; conducting 8 research studies in 6 months.

Using data collected throughout these multi-phase research projects, I put together a set of 13 core customer personas for each of edX’s core B2C and B2B product offerings.

Example User Persona


There were a number of key business outcomes as a result of the persona work led by the Audience Insights Guild.

Organizational Outcomes

  • Delivered on our core goal of gaining a deeper understanding of our core customers needs, motivations, and behaviors
  • Piloted a new cross-functional working model inside of the organization
  • Increased company investment in enterprise product opportunities based on how they differ from consumer customer needs
  • Creation of a product comparison page that allowed learners to easily search and browse for programs based on their diverse learning needs
  • Redesigned core product and program pages on the marketing site that more closely aligned with customer needs and motivations

Research Outcomes

  • Repeatable research process that could be broadly scaled and applied across teams
  • Creation of a research playbook that included templates for moderator guides, interview schedules and could be used for future research studies
  • Creation of centralized research repository that enabled easy search and discovery of customer insights by edX employees