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Designing for women using archetypes, not stereotypes

by Sam Ladner on July 23, 2012 · 9 comments

in Blog, culture, design, home, personas, product design

Personas are a useful tool for both designers and marketers. When done well, they bring to life real people with real needs and values. They can help us make our products and messages intelligible, resonant, and meaningful.

Unfortunately, this is not what usually happens.

As Steve Portigal has warned, personas are frequently done poorly. They are flat, meaningless caricatures, not real people with real problems. Poorly done personas are more akin to stereotypes than archetypes. In my experience, this is particularly true for personas that represent women. Personas of women are often flat, stereotypical and narrow characters who share little of the paradox and complexity of actual women.

A "Mom on the go" -- now in cute shoes!

To combat this, I argue in this post, we should aspire to jettison stereotypes and instead employ archetypes.

I’ve seen more than my fair share of design personas over the years. If there is one persona that consistently sends me around the bend, it’s the dreaded “Mom on the go.” She is “busy.” Of *course* she is busy — she has the hardest job on earth, which is only getting harder as the expectations of “intensive mothering” increase. She is “concerned about family.” Of course she is! Isn’t everybody? She wants to “make her life easier.” Ok, do you see a pattern here? The “mom on the go” is just a picture inside the designer’s head of a person who is really busy and happens to have kids. Then why is she a “mom on the go” and not just a woman? Or man?

I would argue the reason this persona continues to rear her ugly head (sorry, Mom, I know you don’t have time for a shower), is because we are drawn to facile explanations of what it means to be a woman. The problem I have with “mom on the go” is she often is the stand-in for ALL women. Any woman who doesn’t have the 2.3 kids and the minivan and Cheerios on the floor is somehow invisible. I have no Cheerios on my floor and I can tell you, I’ve never seen a persona called “Married woman, no kids with pristine hardwood.” God, how I aspire to see that persona.

There may well be a woman who matches the mom on the go persona, but there are just as many other kinds of women. Instead of using the stereotype of the “mom,” I say we should draw on the many archetypes of women. Here are a few that I challenge you to use as a rubric for your next persona project:

  • Headstrong Heddie: You know this woman. She is Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. She’s competitive. She’s outgoing. She likes to be good at a craft or a sport. She has male and female friends. Sometimes femininity confuses her. She is a woman and likes it but gets angry when you tell her what she’s supposed to be like. She impetuous and gets herself into trouble. Starbuck gets shipwrecked on a foreign planet. Artemis accidentally kills her lover with a well-shot arrow. She is courageous. She might even have kids but don’t tell her what kind of mom she’s supposed to be.
  • Wise Wendy: You know her too. She is Hillary Clinton, running the world. She is no dummy. She holds her cards close to her chest. She knows how to run with the big boys and she doesn’t make the rookie mistakes Heddie does. She gets annoyed when you call her cold, because she isn’t; she’s reserved. She knows she’s good at stuff, and she doesn’t need you to condescend to her. She’ll ignore you if you do.
  • Mother Martha: This is one half of the stereotypical “mom on the go.” This is Hestia, the woman who mothers everyone. Her home is a not a castle, it’s a refuge — for everyone. She is limitless in her loving and nurturing. She welcomes everyone into her home. She may not have children, but she “adopts” anyone or any pet that needs it. She is more concerned about caring for others than for herself. She’ll spend time organizing events or researching topics that may help other people. Martha’s weakness is that she puts others first.
  • CEO Sarah: This is the other half of the “mom on the go.” Unlike Martha, Sarah is in charge of her house, which IS a castle, thank you very much. She organizes, improves, and streamlines whatever she does, whether it be a home, a corporation, or a volunteer school program. Just like the goddess Hera, Sarah’s weakness is that she really does love power. It’s come back to bite her in the past. She is political and hungry.
  • Gorgeous Jane: Jane is the Marylin Monroe of the world. She is the Joan from Mad Men. She is also no dummy but she is more in tune with stereotypical femininity than Heddie or Wendy. She may look beautiful, but underneath she’s just as clever as anyone else. She loves and nurtures but not the in the selfless way that Martha does. She sees herself as atop the hierarchy of women. She is Helen of Troy; in some ways she IS at the top of that hierarchy. She is annoyed with anyone who condescends to her, just like Wendy. Her weakness is that she has a narrow conception of femininity so she may underestimate her skills or abilities.

Now take a step back and look at these archetypes. What do they have that the “mom on the go” doesn’t have? Depth. Complexity. Paradox. Conflict. That is what real people have and real women are no different. In your next persona project, aspire for some measure of ambivalence in your personas. Your designs and messages will be much more interesting as a result.

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Categories: Blog · culture · design · home · personas · product design

{ 1 trackback }

Designing a Better Archetype « eat:Strategy
August 2, 2012 at 12:21 am

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 natalle July 23, 2012 at 9:32 pm

Love it Sam. These are awesome archetypes.

Bring on more: Depth. Complexity. Paradox & Conflict!!!!


2 Peter Merholz July 24, 2012 at 9:10 am

While I’m intrigued by your use of archetypes, I find your name of them unfortunate. Perhaps the most common failing found in bad personas are cute and alliterative names. Such labels allow the audience of the persona to distance themselves, because the cute name turns the persona into a type, an ‘other’, not someone you could relate to.

In my work, the goal of personas is to encourage empathy with the customers that we’ve engaged with. Archetypes are helpful at encouraging us to make our personas not cliched, but I don’t think they’ll help design and product teams get a better authentic sense of their customers.


3 Sam Ladner July 24, 2012 at 9:14 am

Peter, you’ve found *my* weakness: I’m impatient. I wanted to get this post written and up, so I compromised and used these names. You’re right — archetypes are helpful but they’re not “personas” per se.

What I’d like to see is that people go out, do real research with real people, and instead of drawing on stereotypes, they draw on *archetypes* that have more complexity and depth. Basically, it’s about good character development. We have all seen poor character development in the movies and on TV — and sadly in personas.

These personas — names aside, heck, maybe you can suggest some — are inspiration for people to approach and include more complexity in their personas.

p.s., I’m a total Heddie.


4 Chris Atherton July 24, 2012 at 10:06 am

Here’s another:

Intellectual Ida. She’s highly educated, but even if she weren’t, she’d still be one of the smartest women you ever meet: she’s a born intellectual. Ida’s favourite thing to throw into a conversation is “it’s always more complicated”, and she’ll sometimes gently remind you about nuance and multiple points of view. Whether she identifies strongly as highly feminine or a complete tomboy, Ida epitomises intellectual curiosity and a desire for personal growth and discovery through learning. She’s unlikely to feel a strong need for your product or service, but when she finds one that works for her, she’ll be its staunchest advocate.

(based, with modifications, on some dear friends, one of whom by the way clocked me as Starbuck in about 0.5 seconds ;)


5 Chris Atherton July 24, 2012 at 10:07 am

Oops, forgot to close bold tag! Mucho sorries.


6 Sam Ladner July 24, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I think Ida is kind of like Wendy, actually. At least, that’s how I picture her. Logical. Smart. Vulcan almost.

Starbuck aka Heddie? Yeah she’s not Vulcan, that’s for sure.


7 Mark Dykeman August 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm

mmm. they sound really, really white, and like they have republican husbands. Also the idea of persona for individuals that do not take into account their significant others is missing something important. Most adults are part of a family. Hopefully this would apply equally to men, too.

The name Wendy makes me feel weird. Just a personal thing. Barbara is really bad too. Stay away from Judy. Heddie sounds like an nasty nickname given to her by the football team. What *is* that short for?


8 Sam Ladner August 31, 2012 at 6:27 am

Mark, you are right. They *do* sound white. Thanks for pointing that out. The names? Well they do sound a bit last century, that’s true.

As for their families, in *intentionally* left out descriptions of their families. I did that for a purpose. I wanted people to see these women as individuals first. All too often we don’t do that in marketing or design. But of course their families are relevant for an actual design project!


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