What is the better way to motivate the team to deliver an outstanding experience to customers? One or the other? Or maybe a combination?

Picture of the “ for Branding” cards by Aga Szóstek

Let’s start with some definitions. Personas are (according to their creator Alan Cooper): “…not the real people but they represent them throughout the design process. They are hypothetical archetypes of actual users. Although they are imaginary they are defined with significant rigor and precision. Actually, we don’t so much ‘make up’ our personas as discover them as a byproduct of the investigation process.”

There are three elements of peronas that I would like to highlight:

  1. Personas are hypothetical archetypes of actual users, which means that they are combined representations of needs, desires and pain points of groups of people who share some common traits. Which traits are being chosen to determine that commonality depends on the persona creator and is typically based on the behavioural or mental models related to the investigated problem.
  2. Personas are imagineries defined with significant rigor and precision, which indicates that the process of creating a persona needs to have a solid ground and stem from well executed user research.
  3. Personas are discovered as a byproduct of the investigation process, which suggests that they are an add-on to the project not its central attention point.

I wrote some time ago how personas are great when it comes to educating the team how to empathize with customers and also as a communication tool to verify whether the project is still following the needs of their user group. They are, however, less successful when it comes to taking business decisions. The article ended with a question: is there an alternative? I have been haunted by this question ever since.


Through a random encounter I have stumbled onto a concept of archetypes. Archetypes are: “…the embodiments of the universal stories that all human being share. […] Archetypes represent how we manifest the roles we play within those universal stories, the lessons we learn and the paths we choose to walk. They evoke our imaginations, our dreams and our aspirations.[…] They are universally shared symbols that connect the conscious mind with the subconscious meanings, concepts, moods, desires that are inherently expressive of common human needs, instincts and potentials.”

There are another three aspects that I would like to pinpoint here:

  1. Archetypes are the embodiments of the universal stories that all human beings share, which means that they represent something that each or us has a mental model of be it an angel, rebel or citizen. After a short moment of thinking we are able to depict what such an archetype means.
  2. Archetypes evoke our imaginations, our dreams and our aspirations, which says that they are aspirational models we are likely to desire and pursue.
  3. Archetypes are universally shared symbols that connect the conscious mind with the subconscious meanings, which indicates that they can be defined and perceived both on the conscious (business) and subconscious (emphatic) level.

These are unique qualities, which can open up new ways of thinking about business that might not be straightforwardly reachable by using personas. So, are archetypes an alternative for personas? Or perhaps these two approaches are complimentary? Let’s look at it.

Introspection versus outrospection

In their nature personas are focusing on the external perspective. They aim to depict the expectations of the world towards the company, the team and their product. They set a frame for what should be delivered. They could be compared to the old grumpy men from “The Muppet Show”: Statler and Waldorf, sitting out there on the balcony and expressing snarky comments on how the day-to-day work unveils. The team is doing their best given the circumstances only to be criticized by the people who may not understand the technological and organizational constraints they have to deal with and overcome.

Let me be very clear here: I am not advocating against user tests. I am just trying to say the the perspective of having the tests at different moments in the design process might not be sufficiently motivating for the team to stay focused on the goal while taking the numerous often difficult decisions and compromises.

There is a certain quality of archetypes that might go easily unnoticed. As much as personas depict the customers and their needs, archetypes can embody the vision and the attitudes of the company itself. In other words, they offer directions of how the employees could act, think and behave. They are introspective in a sense that they set the framework for the flavour of the final result without constraining it with specific decisions.

In other words, a team can determine that the given solution (e.g. a software for finding customer travel preferences) should follow the archetype: DETECTIVE. What does it mean? A detective is someone who tirelessly seeks after finding the true answer. She is tough, stubborn, sometimes intimidating trying to answer why people do what they do. The team can choose to create its software after Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot. Indiana Jones or professor Langdon. Whatever archetype they choose the metaphor that is embedded in it is pretty powerful and self-explanatory. And, most importantly of all, it is introspective and aspirational. It allows for seeing the users as co-directors rather than the passive audience that comes for the screening and throw comments without a genuine commitment to the creative process itself.

Simplification versus richness

Personas were created with quite a straightforward focus in mind. Their goal was to reduce a risk of creating an unwanted solution through the use of empathy. They were born in the philosophy of reductionism, which is: “a search for the associations between phenomena, which can be described in terms of simpler or more fundamental phenomena”. Such an approach is pretty informative and risk avert yet it is not particularly inspirational for humans.

On the other hand, archetypes seem to be more related to the philosophy of phenomenology: “primarily concerned with the systematic study and reflection on the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness.” In other words, archetypes relate to our subjective approach to life rather than attempting to analyze the world as an objective set of objects acting and reacting to one another. Such an approach opens doors for richness of interpretations, uncertainty of choices and space for risk taking. In such a way archetypes seem to be more equipped to bring change to life comparing to personas that are better at setting the external boundaries for the design space.

Strategy versus tactics

There is another quality that differentiates personas and archetypes. Personas are in their nature prescriptive — they are like a recipe from the cookbook determining the steps to follow with a hope for a decent enough outcome. While it is a good tactical (or perhaps even operational) approach, there is little strategy in it for employees to be inspired by. Personas, being stories themselves, leave insufficient space for a narrative that is deeply meaningful for the people on the inside. And, let’s be honest, they are not that much fun to play with.

Strategy is about something entirely different though. It is (following the recent works of Henry Mintzberg, Henrik von Scheel, Max McKeown and Vladimir Kvint rather than the more traditional definitions): “a pattern in a stream of decisions to deliver a unique mix of value that is shaping the future within a given context”. For a strategy to be successful, it needs to carry a universal for the entire company accompanied with a set of values that are to be act upon when taking business, technological and design decisions. It is like providing a set of ingredients to the chef (the teams) and giving her the freedom to cook to the best of her abilities.

Archetypes are in a sense that their nature is open, infinite and, as I have already mentioned before, aspirational. They invite questions such as: what is there to fight for? What does make sense? Who does it help? In a way they can be seen as a conscience of action rather than a map of action. They support storytelling not only about the solution but also about the here creators who bring it to life. They build on the strengths and aspirations of humans leaving the space for playfulness and imagination. And the most importantly of all: they are fantastic to define challenges for the teams and individuals (rather than plans and action points) that are based on the common notion.


An issue that is crucial for any company is the metrics of progress especially when it comes to the domain of Customer Experience, which is still in the toddler age when it comes to an understanding of how to determine its value for business. While personas are an excellent tool for validating the design choices, they fail to formulate more generic measurements for business success stemming from UX, CX or any other form of customer-centric activity.

Archetypes create space for defining more generic measurements that could be applied. For example, it is not that hard to ask customers to envision a bank as an ANGEL: acknowledging that there is something bigger than self-interest, providing aid and comfort, guidance and instruction, love and humanity. Turning these generic qualities into business-relevant criteria: wisdom, empathy, respect can help to periodically check with customers whether the subsequent actions fall into their vision of an ANGEL archetype.

Are archetypes better than personas?

I don’t think that archetypes are better than personas in a universal sense. I believe that both tools serve two different domains: strategic and tactical, and that they should be used for these respective domains. Thus, if I were to recommend anything I would suggest to use archetypes to create the meaningful space for inspirational narrative that inspires the employees to the best of their abilities in a given direction. Once this direction is defined and internalized, personas could be used to assess the boundaries of this direction and allow for checking whether the design choices follow that envisioned direction.

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