User personas for language learning

“Beginner / Intermediate / Advanced” is perhaps the most obvious way to try to understand groups of language learners. However, it fails because of its subjectivity. One person who calls themselves a “beginner” may have a vastly different level of need and ability compared to another self-labelled “beginner”.

Using Robert Greene’s Path to Mastery (and in his Mastery book), we can instead find a five-step framework that lets the learner find where they are on the journey, and helps us build solutions for their needs.

At Bitesize Irish, we’ve laid out this Irish language learning journey, and we’re adapting our solutions around the Mastery framework.

How we got there at Bitesize Irish

Several years ago, I read E-Myth Mastery by Michael E. Gerber. It builds on Gerber’s idea of taking a structured approach toward delighting your customer. It made me ask, “Well, what is Bitesize Irish?”. We had membership plans around “added value”, so the higher plan had additional online lesson types like videos. But it didn’t address the reality that people are at different levels of the journey, not just product usage.

In E-Myth Mastery, Gerber brings you through quite a detailed process of learning about the worldview of your different customers. With most of our customers being outside of Ireland, there was a draw toward building a service that spoke only to that specific worldview (“I want to connect with my ancestry”, “I dream of visiting Ireland”). At the time, we set off on our own in-depth user research, getting survey responses from about 100 customers and audience members.

Seth Godin preaches about identifying your minimum viable audience, and building solutions addressing that audience’s worldview. So at Bitesize Irish, I interviewed by email a couple of dozen class attendees, and we set off on concentrating on “active Irish language learners attending classes outside of Ireland”. Advantages to this group were that they had self-identified as being serious, and had a local network of follow learners they could spread the word to. We never really “broke into” local class ecosystems, and the COVID-19 put a temporary halt to the ecosystem of local Irish language classes.

But more recently, we’ve noticed new customers within Ireland. There’s been several teachers in training, for example, looking to improve their Irish language. Parents were also in touch with us as they want to improve their own Irish to help their children, or even speak Irish at home. So what about these people? They want to improve their Irish, and we can help them, but we would exclude them by speaking directly to the worldview of the international customer.

Later, I came back to Geoffrey A. Moore’s Crossing the Chasm concept. He argues that for a company to succeed, it needs to be the top solution for some sub-set of the audience. I couldn’t take our “international customer” as this spearhead group, because it would emotionally exclude people who did grow up in Ireland (regardless of whether or not they live there now). It wouldn’t “make way” for us to help further groups of people later. Instead that would keep us stuck in one corner of the market.

A solution could have been to set up a different brand or a secondary brand for Irish people learning Irish. This makes sense up to a point, but you’d end up with a diluted mix of brands, each needing energy and maintenance. This didn’t seem like the way to go.

So I circled back to Robert Greene’s Mastery framework, which had resonated with me previously and I had podcasted about it. It had already informed our tag-line: Gaeilge Gach Lá, which now serves as merch.

The Mastery framework of the Journey is based on historical trends of mastery of skills. It also speaks to the Jungian “quest”, the hero’s journey that anyone of us can take on. I love the depth of the framework, speaking to our built-in intuition and creativity. There’s nothing like taking on a business challenge that speaks to the soul and involves a life-long journey of self-discovery.

The result at Bitesize Irish is that we have a set of user personas that are informed by the individual’s point in their language journey – it doesn’t matter if they grew up in Ireland and did Irish in school, or are looking to dip their toes into “Irish Gaelic”. We’ll continue to adapt our offerings around this journey (the steps of the Mastery framework ultimately being the benefits of our different offerings). Outside of our products, it will also help inform our marketing efforts, because we can speak to the different personas in a more concentrated and confident way.