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How to Use Archetypes and Personas for Your Product

If you’ve worked in or around product development in any capacity, you’ve probably heard the terms “archetypes” and “personas” before. People have probably told you how you really need archetypes and personas for your product and have them front and center. In fact, you’ve probably heard the two terms being used interchangeably. So, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that both archetypes and personas are important when solving problems in order to fit user needs. Hooray! The bad news is that archetypes and personas are actually two different ways to segment the users of your product…

I know, when I found that out, I was pretty bummed too – now I had to learn what each actually meant and what the difference was!

Archetypes and Personas: Using them Effectively for Your Product

The hard part is that both archetypes and personas are very similar; they are just developed differently and used in different ways. And, to be honest, when I was doing my research on these terms, I wasn’t able to find a whole lot of great resources online that made the difference between the two clear.

So I’m here to end the confusion once and for all!

Archetypes

If you think back to any high school literature class, you’ll remember learning about archetypes in classic books or plays you read back then. Huckleberry Finn, anyone? Well, during that time in my life, I knew archetypes as typical characters or situations that are a reflection of something universal in human nature. For example, in Homer’s piece, The Odyssey, the archetypal hero that we all come to know and love is Odysseus. During his journey, we see him fight and overcome several obstacles, sometimes to his detriment. As the archetypal hero, he just really feels the need to show that he can conquer and overcome; this portrayal helps the readers understand Odysseus and perhaps even relate.

So, back to my literature class… Archetypes were examples or patterns you could pick up on and draw connections to. They are valuable because they can give readers a deeper understanding of a certain character that goes beyond the writing itself. A classic example

Now, fast-forward a decade or so and I find myself thinking about archetypes again! Hello, Atticus Finch… okay, actually I was now thinking of archetypes as patterns or themes in user groups of the products I was designing! When thinking of archetypes in the world of marketing or product development, they tend to build off of the definition of literature archetypes.

Archetypes in this new world are developed around user behavior and general characteristics. They don’t really refer to any one person. In fact, they typically refer to a group of people or a type of people with similar behaviors and thought processes. They number of archetypes is endless, but you’ll tend to see a limited handful come up when thinking about your own product or service. A great example of this is Coca-Cola’s user archetype. This company thinks of their customers as innocent (and perhaps living in a utopian world). You can tell by the way Coca-Cola has shown ads in close to paradise settings leaving you with a feeling of warmth. Remember those famous Coca-Cola Holiday ads featuring Santa Claus? Of course, since they Coca-Cola has expanded their user archetypes, but you’ll also notice that choose a select few to focus on. These archetypes can be tweaked and tailored to speak to the brand or product, specifically. (A side note, developing archetypes for a business or brand can actually be a complex process with lots of intensive research. I’ll touch more on this in a later post!)

So when is the best type to use archetypes? Honestly? All the time! Your archetypes should be front and center in your company or team. Your teams should be able to rattle them off like their ABCs. When taking a human-centered approach to design and development, it’s important to keep the user groups front and center. This way you know that you are truly creating a sound product or solution that actually fits your users’ needs. It is helpful to group users into archetypes so that you can think through how a certain feature, product, or campaign will be perceived by that archetype group.

When I was working at RetailMeNot (the super awesome coupon website that always has discount codes for Express), we had a handful of archetypes that we would refer to when working on new projects. These included the In-The-Moment Millennial Shoppers, Luxury Leisure Shoppers, Research-Oriented Shoppers, Frugal Shoppers, and the Shopping Enthusiast. These 5 archetypes were created and modeled off of different shopping and deal-seeking behaviors that RetailMeNot users had. These archetypes helped when designing the RetailMeNot Coupons app that is available for Android and iOS; we knew that Frugal Shoppers, Shopping Enthusiasts and the Millennial groups would be using the app the most. These were groups that were probably familiar with technology (and apps), always looking for a good deal, enjoyed shopping and would work hard to get a good discount, if needed. Understanding general characteristics and behaviors like this helped dramatically when making decisions on a daily basis to build the best app. Having the archetypes in mind helped us when deciding how to feature content in the RetailMeNot app. Do we show more details up front or is it important to show a breadth of content? Do we need to have bigger, brighter photos in the app? How should the colors and styling of the app UI look? Knowing our archetypes helped our team make the best decisions while working through questions like these.

Personas

So what’s the deal with personas, then? Simply put, personas are archetypes that are layered with specific characteristics. Personas are typically presented with specifics like a name, photo, age, occupation, lifestyle, and even brand choices. For example, you can point to “Tech-Savvy Tom” and describe him to your team member to paint a picture of an (almost) real person with a personality and story. Personas can be incredibly useful when working on a specific problem or product feature and you need some guidance.   

Building personas for your brand, product, or business is powerful. Why? Because people love stories and stories stick. So if you have a story for the user of your product, trust me your team will have that user seared into their mind when working on the project at hand.

You can do a quick search on Pinterest and find tons of examples of Personas developed for well-known, successful companies. Here is an excerpt from one I found that Chaotic Moon developed for Disney’s movie application.

As you can see, this paints a crystal-clear picture of what Dana Simpson likes, wants, cares about and thinks about. You can probably picture her very clearly in your head. By thinking about their users this way, Disney can create features that Dana will love in the product.   

Personas don’t have to be used just for products, either. At Favor, we just posted an article for National Cheese Day (yes, that’s a thing!) doing a spotlight on a local Austin cheesemonger. Now, as a cheese-lover myself, I know that there is so much to write about when discussing cheese! So if there is so much to talk about, how do we focus the article so that it is appealing to Favor users? Well, we craft it for one person: the young, single millennial who considers themselves a foodie, loves drooling over #foodporn on Instagram, and just ordered delivery with their friends last Saturday night. And, boom! Now we’re talking! Personas are built around human behavior and specific characteristics. (Remember, archetypes are different in that they are built around human behavior and general characteristics.) These specifics put creators in a place where we don’t need to write an article or craft a campaign for thousands and thousands of readers, we only need to write it for one person! Not only does this make our job way easier, but it also helps to create a succinct and focused message.

 

Unlike archetypes, personas are best used for specific initiatives when you are trying to create empathy for the users or working on initiatives at a micro level. Personas are great for reference with when brainstorming ideas, creating a product feature, or writing an article. Archetypes can be used for these as well, but it is often easier to visualize and focus on one specific persona, rather than a general group of people. On the other hand, archetypes excel when you are looking at overarching initiatives at the macro level like product strategy, user flows, or general product interactions.

And there you have it folks! While archetypes and personas seem very similar, their full potential is unleashed when applied in the right places. At the end of the day, you’re trying to keep your users front and center. Knowing who they are (characteristics and behaviors) will yield a stronger product, brand, service, and company.

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