Behavioural archetypes instead of personas

Image by Jakob Owens

As a behavioural designer and user researcher, I get to work on diverse design briefs ranging from UX & service design to helping businesses become more customer-centric. From my experience, I found that different types of projects require different kinds of “persona” tools depending on how and by who are they going to be used. This post focuses on designing behavioural archetypes for customer-centricity strategy.

In a customer-centricity project, the output is a strategy to show the way forward and the customer experience design is informing how to get there. This kind of project requires a different type of personas — I call them behavioural archetypes.

The purpose is to educate the stakeholders in the client company (external to the design team) about their existing customers so they can tailor their business goals towards serving them better. This is needed because traditionally businesses focus primarily on their own product and what’s important for the business but tend to forget (or not know at all) what’s important for their customers.

The term behavioural archetype is more accurate as it represents a typical example of customer behaviour or motivation which is characteristic for a group of people, whereas the term persona relates to an individual person which carries a lot of subjectivity.

Behavioural archetypes are structured models of customer responses to a brand. As the name suggests they tap into the behavioural level of cognitive processing. In a nutshell, the focus is on who does what, how they do it, and why.

According to Don Norman’s book Emotional Design, behavioural processing is influenced directly by both of the other two levels of processing — visceral and reflective. This means that a behavioural archetype should encompass how a type of customer perceives the brand, what motivates them to engage with it, what they expect, and how they reflect on their experience. As behavioural archetypes look particularly at motivations they are useful for determining what drives or harms loyalty in the long run.

“Designing for the behavioural level means designing product behaviours that complement a user’s own behaviours, implicit assumptions, and mental models.” — Robert Reimann

The behavioural archetypes represent typical motivations, goals and general attitudes of the customers and also how these can change based on the quality of their experience with the brand over time.

To support the story of the entire customer journey, the archetypes fall into two categories:

  • Mindsets — existing prior to their engagement with a brand. These are linked to typical interests that drive their decision to buy from the brand.
  • States — developed throughout the experience with a brand. These can change according to the quality of interaction they have which in time will determine loyalty and/or repurchase.

Let’s illustrate this with an example of a fictional coffee brand. People visit a coffee shop for different reasons. Here’s a simple breakdown of a few:

  • “I am a fan of the brand, I find it cool and love everything they do. I wouldn’t get my coffee anywhere else because I am loyal to their values.” — Passionate mindset
  • “I like getting coffee on my way to work but it costs me a lot over time. This coffee shop is the cheapest around. I just want an affordable coffee-to-go.” — Price-sensitive mindset
  • “All I care about is exceptionally good coffee. I follow famous baristas on Instagram and only want to get the best coffee taste there is.” — Quality-driven mindset
  • “I like to work remotely on my laptop at coffee shops — I like the atmosphere. I don’t really care about the coffee drink that much but I buy it so I can hang out at the café place.” — Ambience-seeker mindset
Image by Common Good

These four cases are examples of the different mindset archetypes. However, if the barista accidentally spills a drink on a customer of any of the mindset types, they might move from neutral towards angry or disappointed state. Contrary, if they have a really nice chat and get their name signed on the cup — they might leave in a delighted state and return again.

The mindsets are defined by people’s existing psychographic traits, the states are directly influenced by the customer experience — and therefore the brand should take ownership of it by understanding and empathising with their customers’ mindsets and states.

Creating behavioural archetypes requires a deep qualitative understanding of the customer’s pre-, during- and post- journey with a brand from a representative sample of existing customers. It’s quite a research endeavour.

Previously, I’ve worked on behavioural archetypes for a clients’ customer-centricity strategy. To obtain the relevant data, we first designed a general customer satisfaction survey that we positioned on the checkout page of our client’s website and generated over 2000 responses. We used this opportunity not only to understand the customers better but also to create a pool of participants for further research activities.

It’s important to identify patterns of customer behaviours but also to see how they evolve throughout each individual journey. For this purpose, we designed a diary study to track the customer experiences over time and after the purchase. This was helpful to determine customers’ actions at each step of the journey. However, the deeper motivations driving their decision making are best identified with a follow-up interview. After we had the knowledge from the diary-study about what happened, we could build on it with a phone interview clarifying why they acted the way they did as well as learn more about their personality. This helps to define the specific motivations, needs and frustrations for each mindset archetype and the typical states they are likely to adopt after the interaction with the brand.

What is great about this gradual approach is that as researchers we are able to develop rapport and a relationship with the participants. As they go through the research activities over time they are able to reflect and give us more in-depth responses about their motivations and personal life story.

To wrap up, the behavioural archetypes are a useful tool in helping to foster a customer-centric strategy within a product-focused organisation as they remind everyone inside the business who their customers are — guiding decisions about what different type of customers are likely to do, feel, expect, and how are they likely to respond.

Starting with asking these questions:

  • What is the type of project? Are the personas going to be used internally by the design team or by other stakeholders?
  • Are we creating personas to represent a target audience for a new product / service? Or are we modelling the behaviours of existing customers within a current product / service?
  • What do we specifically need to know about the customers to inform the design outputs — goals, behaviours, motivations, needs, frustrations? Who do we need to interview to get relevant information?
  • Which methods are best suited to obtain this information — interviews vs surveys, diary studies vs observation research?

The main thing to keep in mind is that creating personas or behavioural archetypes is not an end in itself. They are a decision-guiding tool and as such, they need to be tailored to each individual project to serve its purpose.

I do UX research and write on related topics

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