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Personas vs. Archetypes

Summary: Archetypes and personas used for UX work contain similar insights, are based on similar kinds of data, and differ mainly in presentation. Personas are presented as a single human character, whereas archetypes are not tied to specific names or faces.

Personas are a big source of confusion in the UX world. The core idea behind the concept is periodically reinvented and renamed. (This sort of vocabulary inflation is only too common in UX). I regularly see blog posts, talks, or articles purporting that personas are dead and advocating instead for a new technique. Nearly every time, the critique of personas is based on a misunderstanding of personas and the author’s “superior” innovation is a slightly different spin on the core idea. 

One particular variant that I get asked about frequently in our UX Conference Personas course is archetypes. My typical answer is that (well-done) personas and archetypes are extremely similar, differing only in how the underlying insights are presented.

Note that this this article will be the first in a series – the second will tackle how to bring personas (and archetypes) into a more inclusive design practice.

Personas and Archetypes Communicate the Same Insights

Personas and archetypes in UX are two slightly different ways of visualizing the same kinds of insights. Both summarize user research data: they are representations of audience clusters, capturing major areas of overlap in user behaviors, attitudes, motivations, pain points, and goals. (Note that these clusters are not based on either demographic characteristics such as age, country, income or personality traits such as extraversion and openness.) By finding these clusters of users, we end up with a small set of composites that showcase key characteristics and major differences across a few types of users. In that respect, personas and archetypes are identical.

The difference between them is in whether each one of those user types is presented as a specific human character. With personas, we invent a (plausible) name, bio, photo, and other personal characteristics, whereas with archetypes, we omit those details and refer to the user type merely by an abstract label that represents the defining behavioral or attitudinal characteristics of that user type.

In his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Joseph Campbell describes the concept of monomyth — a common story template which involves a hero’s journey. We can use this framework to understand the difference between archetypes and personas: the “unlikely hero with humble beginnings” is a central archetype in Campbell’s monomyth, whereas Luke Skywalker is a specific example of it, a personification of the archetype (which we can shorten to persona).

For example, imagine an ecommerce site that sells home appliances. Among the target users of this site, one common user type engages in exhaustive comparison shopping and is especially interested in the overall reliability and warranties of appliance brands and models before buying. That user type can be represented as the Reliability Optimizer, an archetype with no name, photo, or bio. Or, alternatively, we could also represent that user type as Reliability Researcher Rachel, a persona with details such as a name, photo, quote, or short biographical facts used to flesh out this character. We might also include some information that explains her motivation in a relatable way — for example, a short narrative about how she’s been very frustrated in the past by appliances that break down right after the warranty expires. In this case “Rachel” is a personified version of the Reliability Researcher archetype.

An archetype called "reliability optimizer" with details such as goals and needs.
A user archetype that focuses on core behavioral details
A persona entitiled "reliability researcher Rachel" with a bio, photo, quote, and data about behaviors and needs.
A persona showing the same insights as the archetype, but with some extra details intended to make it memorable and empathetic

Both the archetype and the persona represent the same user type and contain the same core insights about this user type’s needs, behaviors, goals, pain points, and even motivations. Both can serve to compare different user priorities and motivations (e.g., the reliability-focused comparison shopper vs. the interior designer that wants to deliver a harmonious look for clients). But archetypes are abstract, while personas wear a human face.

So, why would we choose one approach or the other?

Personas Invite Empathy and Memory

One advantage of well-crafted, realistic personas is that they invite (even though they do not necessarily guarantee) empathy — they put a name, a human face, and believable motivations to an otherwise abstract bundle of characteristics. Archetypes strip away the very details that humans latch onto when they empathize with another person — their humanity.

Personas also take advantage of the power of narratives: the fact that humans are prone to remember the plot and the characters within a story. For much of humanity’s history, important information was embedded in stories passed along in an oral tradition. Thus, personas tend to be more memorable than archetype.

However, the more characters in a story, the harder it is to remember who is who; the same goes for personas. To take advantage of the narrative effect on memory, we can’t have a huge ensemble cast of persona characters, or our team will start to mix them up.

Personas Put a Single Face to Many Users

One big drawback of personas is that they use just one face to represent a large number of actual users; that single representation of many people (with a huge diversity in backgrounds, physical abilities, cognition, and lived experiences) is inherently going to be reductive. Even thoughtfully chosen, diverse avatars won’t represent everyone. When we pick the faces of our personas, we are quite literally saying that these are our users – anyone who isn’t represented by those faces is therefore being implicitly excluded (unintentionally perhaps, but still excluded). While archetypes sidestep this issue by not having faces at all, they don’t fix the problem; instead, they simply reinforce the team’s implicit biases of who users are.

Personas and archetypes can be a part of inclusive-design efforts when approached thoughtfully, but let’s be clear: simply choosing diverse faces for personas is no replacement for systematic and intentional efforts towards inclusion. The topic of how to make personas and archetypes inclusive is nuanced; we will devote a future article to exploring this topic in the detail it deserves. (For additional reading on this topic, we recommend Building for Everyone by Annie Jean-Baptiste and What Can a Body Do? by Sara Hendren). 

Archetypes Can Work When There’s Resistance to Persona Research

A potential advantage of archetypes over personas occurs when there is resistance to personas at all within the company. Two common examples are:

  1. Team members are skeptical about personas altogether (perhaps because they don’t seem rigorous or because some stakeholders have had unhelpful experiences with personas in the past). Archetypes can avoid some of the baggage that lousy personas have created, allowing the team to still benefit while avoiding a negative halo effect.
  2. The organization has already put resources into marketing-focused personas that aren’t very helpful for UX work (for example, because they are heavily focused on demographics or brand affinities, rather than attitudes and behaviors).

In cases such as these, it is often difficult or impossible to convince your team or your stakeholders that it’s worth the time and effort to research and create new personas. Instead, it may be worthwhile to create archetypes as part of the analysis work already being done as part of other discovery-oriented qualitative UX research, such as interviews; this approach can prevent the perception of duplicate effort.

Of course, it’s a bit underhanded to deceive your stakeholders by doing virtually the same thing under a different name, but sometimes it’s easier to use a new name than to explain that the old name was used wrong.

Summary

Personas and archetypes are functionally the same. They represent the same data and insights about our users’ behaviors, attitudes, goals, and pain points. The difference between them is that personas have a human face, with a name and biographical information, whereas archetypes take the form of an abstraction.

References

Annie Jean-Baptiste, 2020. Building for Everyone. Wiley, NY.

Joseph Campbell. 1949. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books, NY.

Sara Hendren, 2020. What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World. Riverhead Books, NY.

Written by Page Laubheimer.

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