How to use archetypes in design

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‘Brain’ by priyanka for the Noun Project.

What is an archetype?

Archetypes are a tool for people who make products to understand the people they serve. Serving people involves knowing their problems and ways of thinking. Without that, solving problems for people becomes a guessing game of solutions. An archetype acts as a model of a person’s behaviors and thinking which removes most guessing.

Isn’t that a persona?

Personas are fictional people who represent different types of users in a product. They often mix types of information to create empathy for the user. A persona might contain the fictional user’s age, behaviors, employment, frustrations, goals, income, job, location, and more. This is helpful for evoking the mental image of a user but doesn’t model complex ways of thinking.

Jeff Sauro has written about how personas use intuition more than scientific rigor. His article is a primer on the details of creating archetypes, this article focuses on why you should.

What’s an example way to use archetypes?

Imagine you’re asked to design the layout of a new grocery store. You’ve never done this before, so where do you begin? An easy place to start is examining how local groceries stock their shelves.

You might find that ketchup and mustard are often stocked in an aisle labeled ‘condiments’. You could infer that they appear together because they are often used together. Yet, what about peanut butter? Is peanut butter also a ‘condiment’ or something that belongs with jam or bread. Are ketchup and mustard not, also, used on bread and sandwiches? Can we rename our aisle ‘sandwiches’ and include anything sandwich related?

Is a hotdog a sandwich?

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‘Hotdog’ by ghayn for the Noun Project.

It is easy to imagine this simple exercise getting out of hand. Yet, this is a type of problem that designers face. How do you craft an experience for different ways of thinking, different types of people? One method for exploring this problem comes not from design, but comparative literature.

The origin of archetypes.

In 1949, author Joseph Campbell released The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The book compared the myths of heroes in ancient cultures. Campbell found despite the differences between cultures the stories all followed a pattern. In each myth, the hero: goes on an adventure, meets allies, overcomes tests, dies, and is reborn. Campbell, influenced by psychologist Carl Jung, referred to these patterns as archetypes.

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The Hero’s Journey, or monomyth, simplified.

Watch more about Campbell’s theory here.

How does this apply to design?

Archetypes provided a lens to view stories as more similar than different. Back in our grocery store example, let’s imagine interviewing hundreds of shoppers. We find a cross-section of shoppers who only buy ramen noodles. They each report buying the meals for convenience but differ in age, education, and income. We’ve identified a behavior and motivation, do factors like age and income matter in our new design?

For our store layout, demographic data is not as important as behavior and motivation. As with Campbell’s heroes, it is easy to lose sight of behavior patterns if we focus on demographics. At the grocery, we can help our ‘noodle’ archetype by placing ramen noodles closer to the checkout. We know they aren’t buying other items, so why waste their time making them walk more. It is a simple design choice informed by observable behavior.

If we continue to interview shoppers and collect data other archetypes will emerge. It’s easy to imagine we find archetypes based on eating healthy or keeping to a budget. Our ‘ramen-lover’ might merge into a broader archetype centered on convenience.

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‘Ramen’ by Simon Child for the Noun Project.

So, when we’ve discovered a majority of all archetypes we’re ready to start designing our store again. We’re no longer constrained by our ‘sandwiches’ aisle dilemma, either. With confidence, we can now create an aisle near the checkout line with a name like ‘Quick & Easy’.

That sounds great! What’s the catch?

Finding the time to research archetypes and communicate their value isn’t easy. First, there's qualitative interviews with users and experience stakeholders to identify user behaviors. Second, once you have a set of behaviors defined you’ll need to confirm them quantitatively. Lastly, you’ll need a system for identifying users as specific archetypes. Personas, by contrast, are often created over the course of a single workshop!

If you’re willing to invest, you’ll have created a tool that speaks to the heart of user experience design. You’ll have a reliable model of what users need and how they think. With archetypes, you can evoke more than empathy but deep understanding. Thanks for reading, below you’ll find more resources on archetypes!

Additional resources

MeasuringU: How To Make Personas More Scientific

Smashing Ideas: Behavioral Archetypes Toolkit

ResearchOps Berlin: smava — archetypes: patterns of behavior

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