Learn how to bring contributors onto your project by using tools called "personas" and "pathways." These tools will help you plan and test how you'll interact with new contributors, and imagine what is really involved for the contributor to succeed.

A writing and thinking assignment. It can be done alone or you can invite a supporter or community member to help!


Have completed all previous sections and modules


Pen or pencil and paper, or a computer with word processing software


A “persona” is a tool commonly used in the design world, to help create products and experiences that work for real world users (aka “user-centered design”). This short video describes a bit more about personas and how they’re typically used.

About Personas, Zannah Marsh

To recap, the persona is a description of a user. Personas should:

  • describe an imaginary user
  • be based on observations or understandings of actual potential or current users
  • be detailed enough so it feels real to the designer, so they can imagine the persona’s needs and responses to a product or project

Here is a sample persona used by the Mozilla Science Lab to help design its Study Group Program, a effort to get researchers to learn to code and collaborate together informally.

Rashid is a PhD student in astronomy at a university in Southern England. He’s outgoing and a snappy dresser, favoring skinny jeans and colorful cardigans. He lives in on-campus housing and after a long day at the lab he usually rushes home to see his wife and infant son. Rashid took an intro Java programming course long ago, as an undergrad, but his research now demands Python skills. Because of the competitive nature of his lab, he’s reluctant to ask colleagues for help. He follows Mozilla Science Lab on Twitter, has some exposure to and interest to Open Science, but is hesitant to share his data for fear of being “scooped” on an important discovery.

Once we have created a persona, we can imagine how they might interact with our project– the pathway they to get involved and to sustain involvement.


Once we have created a persona, we can imagine how they might interact with our project– the pathway they to get involved and to sustain involvement. Let’s imagine that this process of engagement has a few phases.

  1. Discovery - How they first hear about the project or group.
  2. First Contact - How they first engage with the project or group, their initial interaction.
  3. Participation - How they first participate or contribute.
  4. Sustained Participation - How their contribution or involvement can continue.
  5. Networked Participation - How they may network within the community.
  6. Leadership - How they may take on some additional responsibility on the project, or begin to lead.

If you are working with a good persona, you can clearly see a progression of steps. Here’s an example (using Rashid).

  1. Discovery - Rashid sees poster advertising study group around campus.
  2. First Contact - Attends a meeting of the group, and is encouraged to return in a follow up email.
  3. Participation - Asks and answers questions during the help session.
  4. Sustained Participation - Attends several “hackathons” sessions throughout the semester.
  5. Networked Participation - Invites some of his colleagues from his lab to a session.
  6. Leadership - Agrees to present an intro session on Java, and creates a learning resource to contribute to the group’s repo.

When you think through a pathway, you should begin to realize, what needs to be in place to move your persona forward. You’ll begin to see potential pitfalls for your persona, in terms of skills, time, and motivation. Once you have a sense of this story, you can begin to list solutions to any challenges. Here are examples of things that the project lead would need to do, or put in place for Rashid’s pathway to work:

  • Publicize group meetings via posters around campus as well as on twitter and via email blasts.
  • Collect emails of new group attendees for follow up messages.
  • Offer an online intro to GitHub for those who join mid-semester and missed the first sessions.
  • Schedule meetings for daytimes and early evenings to avoid conflicts with family schedules.

Assignment: Create a Persona and Pathway for Your Project

  1. Brainstorm. Read through the two following questions and come up with answers. You can do this individually or as a group. If working in a group, brainstorm individually and share afterwards. Sticky notes are great for this task, for recording ideas during the brainstorm, and sharing and organizing the group’s ideas. Spend about 3 minutes on each question.
    • Who is the person you most need in your community or on your project? Think of skills and attributes– but, since this is an imaginary person, also give them identifying details, a brief life story, etc.
    • What are that person’s motivations and needs? Think of what might draw them to your project, what value they would gain from it, how it fits into their long term goals.
  2. Create a short written description of your persona. See above “Rashid” for an example. Spend about 4 minutes on this task. If you like, draw a picture of this person!
  3. Plan a Pathway Using the structure above (Discovery → Leadership), describe a pathway for your persona. What are the steps through this project? What could be stumbling blocks for user?
  4. List your Solutions For each potential stumbling block or barrier your user might encounter, list a solution that you’ll work into your design of your group or project.

You’ll likely need more than one persona for your project, as different groups of users will have different needs and motivations. Repeat this exercise as needed.

Now that you’ve gotten a glimpse into the mindset of a potential contributor, it’s time to revisit the project lead role: how you, as project lead, can best work with your contributors. Head over to the next section, on meaningful participation and distributed leadership.

next: Meaningful Participation  

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