As companies grow, employees often become alienated from customers. Most employees are prevented from having any type of perspective-changing, day-to-day interaction with customers as structures are built to scale the business.

However, customer empathy is what drives impactful digital strategy.

It’s important that each person in your company understands who your customers are, and how the experiences of those people matter to that employee. Designing products, services, and experiences that meet customers’ needs is foundational to success. Without this core understanding, businesses and the teams within them risk breaking down and isolating themselves from their customers.

In this post, we’ll explore two tools you can use to help employees develop a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of who your customers are: Personas and Archetypes. Which one is the better tool for your UX efforts? Let’s see. But first, try this quick exercise.

Identifying Shared Understandings… or a Lack Thereof

Here’s a quick exercise: Choose five employees from various teams in your company and ask them to define: a) who your customers are, and b) what their needs are.

Did all employees arrive at the same answer? The answer is usually no. Every employee has their own ideas of who their customers are, whether explicitly stated or not. Through anecdotes or personal experiences, we each build representations in our imaginations of the types of people who are (or should be) our customers. At an organizational level, this inherently creates confusion, misunderstandings, or at worst, rifts in direction or vision.

Across all lines of business—from customer service to the C-suite—a shared understanding of who your customers are offers an even starting place for conversations about strategy, innovation, and product development. Building this shared understanding across a large organization is not simple, and requires an intentional plan. Many different frameworks or mental models exist as a starting place for this work, though the most popular are Personas.

Personas

Countless articles have been written about personas, how to create them, and their uses and failings. Personas are fictional representations of real customers that detail aspects and traits of a person who may use or buy a product or service. They are representations of needs, desires, and pain points of groups of people who share common traits.

Depending on the objective, companies cater personas to meet their needs. The two most common versions of personas are Marketing Personas and UX Personas. Marketing personas seek to document the type of person who is going to buy a product or service. UX personas focus on people who are going to use a product or service. Therefore, marketing personas may include key demographics, market challenges, and purchasing habits. On the other hand, UX personas may include competencies, goals, values, and skills.

UX personas are made stronger by aligning them to an Empathy Map. During user research and prior to persona creation, UX strategists observe and gather comments about the company and its products or services. These findings are documented on a simple map that shows what users or customers think, see, feel, hear, and say. It helps us understand customers in a deeper and more meaningful way.

Personas are valuable because they help unify teams around a shared understanding of who users are today. Because they are prescriptive in nature, they also help drive tactical and operational decisions. However, they are less successful in helping drive long-term business decisions and strategic thinking. They do not offer insight around future or potential customers. Personas do not speak to the aspirations of customers.

Archetypes

Carl Jung hypothesized that part of the human mind contains a collective unconscious shared by all members of the human species—a sort of universal and primal memory. Archetypes tap into this collective unconscious and primal memory, to help us make sense of the world. They can be applied to people (customers) and to situations (journeys) alike.

Archetypes differ from personas in important ways. These are common patterns in stories and mythologies (like the hero, rebel, or everyman) that are easy to identify and relate to. However, they are not prescriptive and they do not offer specific customer details. The value of archetypes is that they help drive aspirational models by evoking creativity and imagination.

Every good story is made up of interesting characters. This goes beyond the stories we read in fiction or watch at the movies. It includes the stories we tell about our lives and everyday situations,good and bad, at home and at work. How many times have you heard someone say, “Thanks for saving the day! You’re such a hero,” or describe someone as a rebel?

In narrative theory, there are 12 classic archetypes. They each play a specific role and have goals, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, and complementary characters.

1. The Innocent

2. The Everyman/woman

3. The Hero

4. The Caregiver

5. The Explorer

6. The Rebel

7. The Lover

8. The Creator

9. The Jester

10. The Sage

11. The Magician

12. The Ruler

Your customer plays a character archetype in your product or service journey. You may have different types of customers that represent multiple archetypes. The more you understand your various customers' goals, needs, and motivations, the more likely it is that you will know how to identify their archetype. While it may be easiest to fall back on categorizing your users as “The Hero” in the journey, it is not always most accurate.

Archetypes can be applied beyond types of customers or users to the types of journeys they are on. There are 10 common archetypal journeys in narrative theory that can be used as frames to view customer journeys. These archetypal journeys contain identifiable phases, drivers, and characters. As you begin to imagine these within the context of your customer's objective, you may start to fill in those blanks.

1. The quest for identity

2. The epic journey to find the promised land/to found the good city

3. The quest for vengeance

4. The warrior’s journey to save his people

5. The search for love

6. The journey in search of knowledge

7. The tragic quest: penance or self-denial

8. The fool’s errand

9. The quest to rid the land of danger

10. The grail quest (the quest for human perfection)

For example, a 23andMe customer may match the character archetype of Explorer and be on either the quest for identify or the journey in search of knowledge. Framing the customer in this way allows our creativity to open up in unique ways. It can lead to clever problem solving of pain points through innovation, or new product and service concepts.

Which Is Better?

So which is better for UX: personas or archetypes? The business school answer is that it depends. Personas and archetypes accomplish different objectives. Personas help us understand who customers are today. Archetypes show us who they want to be. Taking both perspectives helps drive both strategic vision and operational plans.

Many companies that don't have the resources or time to invest in personas would find value in identifying key customer archetypes, though.

Transposing the motivations, goals, and weaknesses of identified archetypes still enables creative strategic thinking and problem-solving.In our experience, it’s best to start with user research and let that guide the creation of lightweight personas. Give our persona building template a try; it’s a free download at the end of this blog post.

You can then develop empathy maps to uncover the motivations, fears, and hopes of your customers. Extrapolate these emotions to archetypes. These findings will help drive action across your organization – from day-to-day tactics and improvements in operations, to long-term vision and ideation.

Need help getting started? Contact the Skookum Team and see how we can help you better understand and connect with your customers, to drive smarter digital strategy in all that you do.