/// Tool

Personas and archetypes

A tool to understand end-users by proxy.

Design is a complex process, especially if you don’t have a good image of the people that will be involved or affected by your design. Generally referred to as end users, they might be very diverse, complex or difficult to reach. Designing for anyone and everyone can be rather difficult which can result in either generic outcomes or poorly resolved problems which didn’t take the end user’s needs into account. However, if designers are given a more concrete image of the end user, they can use that information to improve their design and make a product or service more user-friendly.

Where does the personas and archetypes come from?

Stemming from a Jungian psycho-analytical tradition, personas and archetypes were conceived as a way to better classify and understand the human psyche. The persona, considered as the social face one puts on to present oneself to the outside world, and the archetype, considered universal, primal symbols and images linked to the collective unconscious we are all part of.


The concepts found their way in the design world in 1983 when Alan Cooper, a software developer, started using a user persona to summarise the findings of informal interviews with seven to eight users. This evolved into a more general view of how a user would interact with the software interface. Being adopted and popularised by online businesses in the 90’s, Cooper distilled this technique in the seminal work called The Inmates are Running the Asylum (1999) describing the importance of designing for archetypical users.

In addition to the concept of personas and archetypes, Angus Jenkinson in 1993 got more interested in mapping out the journey of these targeted users through what was originally called “day-in-the-life descriptions”. Particularly within advertising, it was important to observe the personas in interaction in their real interface, behaviour and attitudes towards a brand, as it had been observed that customers could be divided into segments or tribes which portray similar buying behaviours, and whose personality and characteristics towards the brand (product or service) can be understood in terms of common values, attitudes and assumptions.


The concepts of personas and archetypes have met with criticism of reductionism from the moment of their creation. Yet, reductionism is apparent in our daily lives in order to allow ourselves to manoeuvre throughout an increasingly complicated reality. In a lecture on social perception, I tend to start with the question as to why babies sleep so much? The answer is simple, they have very few categories to categorise all of the incoming information bestowed upon them. Their basic frame of reference is, I like this, I don’t like this. As they grow older, this frame of reference becomes more complex and aligned with the complexity of our daily reality, albeit in gradual steps. Therefore, reducing reality into a shared categorical view is something we naturally do in order to make reality more graspable and our view on it communicable. If we didn’t have the ability of categorisation and learning, we’d have to relearn and devise a new understanding of everything around us in order not to fall into chaos.


Another criticism against personas and archetypes tends to be that they are too stereotypical and therefore promote the use of stereotypes. The human brain tends to stereotype people very rapidly in order to make predictions about the world around us and so reduce fear (a predictable world is much less stressful compared to a completely unpredictable world). In a spontaneous fashion, the human brain categorises people according to humanness, age, sex, skin colour, sexual orientation, aggressiveness, trustworthiness etc. Most of this happens in under 700 milliseconds as measured by electroencephalograms. What is interesting about this is that the human brain sees such categorisation as a tool to understand reality more fluently. The danger lies in the non-critical acceptance of this categorisation as a true representation of reality allowing us to make judgments before even perceiving other important contextual information which could severely alter our judgement of such a situation.

This is where an important point about personas and archetypes can be raised. If we assume that everybody who’ll be using these tools has a thorough understanding of the biases endemic to our application of mental heuristics, my experience has shown such an assumption to be incorrect. Most people confronted with personas and archetypes have very little knowledge of what is called ‘meta-cognition’, knowledge about the way we think and which mistakes we make when doing so. Wikipedia has a very interesting list with a vast selection of cognitive biases discovered through research. This list is a cautious reminder of how biassed yet efficient our way of thinking can be. 


In similar vein, personas and archetypes perform a similar function in design. When having to think about a solution fitting the needs of 10 million people, the creative mind easily blocks as it is overloaded with often conflicting needs of certain people. In order to facilitate the design process, one could attempt to reduce the number of people to 10 representatives of specific needs, including a selection of related characteristics which can help identify these representatives. Through the process of user research, more can be discovered about these representatives and how they interact with a product, service or environment.

Personas and archetypes are an interesting tool to involve the targeted population without experiencing the blocking experience of the chaos which is reality. But in similar fashion to a hammer being helpful when building a children’s bed, it may also be used to cause tremendous harm. Therefore personas and archetypes need to be handled with care, in order not to justify the use of prejudice and stigmatisation of targeted populations. Anybody using personas and archetypes in their design process therefore needs to have a firm grasp of meta-cognition and a healthy amount of self-criticism.

About the tool



  • Stickdorn, M., & Schneider, J. (2011). This is service design thinking. John Wiley & Sons;
  • Stickdorn M. Hormess M. Lawrence A. & Schneider J. (2018). This is service design doing : applying service design thinking in the real world : a practitioner’s handbook (First). O’Reilly Media.

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