Archetypes Don’t Have Photos, but Characters Do

In an essay, I wrote, “Only unaware practitioners use made-up personas in their design work.”

I think I know why this is done.

There is a difference between characters and archetypes. You can make up characters, as long as each character is based on a researched archetype. People who make up personas are actually making up characters, but they make these characters without any grounding. There are usually no researched archetypes.

You can do better, and have fun.

📺 Think of it like a TV show.
You have your regular cast of characters in this TV show. Each character on the TV show represents one of the researched archetypes. The characters you make are in scenes together and have different approaches to their overarching purpose in the scene, strictly based on the archetypes they represent.

Researched Archetypes

First let’s explore the archetypes, then we’ll get back to making characters. These researched archetypes have inner thinking, emotional reactions, and personal rules that came from patterns in #QualitativeData synthesis. (This is what I help teams learn. 😉) There are usually 2–7 archetypes per overarching purpose. The archetypes are meant for your org to see the variety of patterns used in approach to the purpose that your team aims to support. (And to see how you only support one part of that variety.)

Do not make up archetypes. That would just be recording your own thinking, your assumptions & bias, and your lived experience. It would just make your archetypes monolithic.

If you want plurality, if you want to support a variety of people and their approaches to their purpose, then you need listening-session based researched archetypes. Research for archetypes lasts a long time. You only do it once and verify it a few times as time goes by. How can they last? Frame a study by the people’s purpose, which doesn’t shift very much over time. Framing studies by the solution requires re-doing the research when the solution shifts. (See this essay or this video about purpose.)

The example below shows four archetypes from a listening-sessions study of 100 people addressing the purpose of “take a long distance trip.” Most of the people were using air travel as a way to address this purpose. You can create one cast of characters and many TV episodes based on these.

four archetypes. 1: Let’s Do This Correctly (It’s frustrating when not everyone is aware & following the rules.) 2: Positive Experience for Everyone (I recognize we are not in control during air travel, so I go out of my way to help people & create a positive experience.) 3: In the Bubble (I need flights to be stress free — and keep my own stress/chaos from affecting others.) 4: Use My Time Wisely (I want to fit everything into the day, get stuff done, and keep moving if plans get changed.)
Four archetypes for the purpose “take a long-distance trip.”

I call these archetypes thinking styles. There’s a historic reason for the name that I mention in my this researcher-level video about Thinking Styles. There are many kinds of archetypes, and I want thinking styles to emphasize people’s interior cognition as they address their purpose, not their opinions or explanations. Their interior cognition is a powerful way to understand each person as an individual. You build a relationship with each person you listen to. You only do one listening session a day, or a week. You invest time. Interior cognition is: inner thinking, emotional reactions, and personal rules as that person addressed their purpose.

The single most supportive shift you can make in your work is to shift from thinking about people in relationship to your solution to thinking about people addressing their larger purpose.

Making Characters

Make visible characters that represent each of the archetypes. Label which character is what archetype. Note the philosophies that archetype follows. (See examples of philosophies in the image above.)

The main cast of characters sticks around from episode to episode.

Here is where you can assign photos, and describe demographics and backgrounds for these characters. Just make sure everything is strictly within the archetype’s description.

Make each of your characters non-average. No actual individual is “average,” after all. Bring in ideas from real primary or secondary research, such as backgrounds where a person has forged personal rules or ways to deal with emotional reactions because of repeated discrimination. Remember people who are constantly fighting to feel heard, always forging workarounds to accomplish their purpose, and participating in or leading activism. Include ideas from real research about people who are quiet, self-doubting, or focused on their safety. Embrace the idea of people who uphold beliefs you disregard, or who seem credulous to you. Mix in a variety of cultural approaches and practices and values. Don’t make a single average character. Not one.

Make characters who might not understand or respect each other. Make characters who might be interested in supporting one another. Look at the archetypes example above and see a few ways you could do this.

If you want a challenge, it’s cool to have 2 or 3 characters represent one archetype with varied demographics. This helps spread #awareness that everyone of a certain demographic does not think the same.

For example, as they address the same #purpose:
👉 An urban character and a rural character, but with the same archetype
👉 An immigrant and a local following the same personal rules
👉 A set of people of different races sharing the same archetype

Most of the made-up personas I see all represent the same archetype with different demographics, but the team thinks that the varied demographics actually represent different archetypes. They have fallen prey to demographic #assumptions. E.g. “young people are experts at digital apps”, “old people move slowly”, or “Spanish-speakers are immigrants”. Help your team recognize when they use a monolithic mindset. See my essay about demographic assumptions.

Episodes in Your TV Show

Episodes featuring the same cast of characters are powerful because they have contextual progression. You can think of each episode as a scenario.

Your TV show needs lots of episodes, so that it covers real life in ways that help your organization support a broader variety of people. Each episode in your TV show is about these characters addressing their own purpose, which your solution may support.

These are not episodes about characters simply using your solution.

  • There’s the story lead-in: the situation before the characters start addressing the purpose.
  • There’s the particular context of the episode causes interior cognition in the characters as they address their purpose.
  • There’s the interaction between characters as they debate from their own archetype’s #perspective.

Show how these characters address the purpose in the context, following the rules from the archetypes they represent.

If you want a challenge, intentionally make a context where one of the characters switches archetypes (thinking styles). This is important. No one is rigid. We sometimes break our own personal rules.

Thinking styles are contextual. A person can use one thinking style for one context and another for other context. (e.g. business travel vs. taking toddler on vacation) More commonly, a person’s thinking style might change based on a life event. So one of your episodes can depict something like this happening.

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