What Is a User?5 min read
Multiple Meanings for "User"
Everyone knows what a user is, right? From project scrums to boardrooms, someone is always talking about “the user.”
But it turns out people mean very different things when referring to users. Product owners, Agile practitioners, marketing strategists, business analysts, UX professionals, and (goodness knows) executives invoke the sacred user in their own distinct ways.
Is the user a target audience? The customer? The actor in an Agile story? A demographic profile? A convenient abstraction? Those annoying people who complain?
What is a user, really?
YOU are a user.
Like all other humans, you use things. Your bare hands aren’t very good at forcing a nail into a crossbeam, so you use a hammer. It’s a fine tool, except when you slip and hit your thumb.
Digital tools are in fashion these days. They are generally miraculous, except when they inevitably become maddeningly frustrating. The interface rage you feel in those moments is a shared human experience. You feel it. Others feel it. Remember this and embrace it.
You are also NOT a user.
If you are involved in defining or making digital products, your claim to usership (with respect to that product) flies out of the window. You are not the person who directly interacts with the thing you make.
Because of this, your opinion on the choices, proclivities, and especially behavior of users does not matter. You have special knowledge, expertise, and motivations that make you incapable of predicting their actual use of your product.
You don’t share their priorities or perspective (yours are decidedly internal). You probably don’t share their age, tech savvy, or physical capabilities either. In this sense, users are completely “other.” When it comes to the products you make, forget everything about yourself.
Users are out to do something.
Users are not demographics, entries in a requirements document, or the subjects of your software kingdom. They are just normal folks trying to get something done.
And that something is always highly specific. They may want to learn how much their house is worth, order prescription refills, share photos with their friends, pay taxes, or invest in crypto. Whatever.
When people want to do things online, they focus intently on that thing, to the exclusion of all else. Anything that gets in the way causes frustration. Anything.
Users are not your customer.
Users don’t negotiate contracts or set development in motion. Customers (and internal stakeholders) do this. These folks represent users, yes. Think of them as middleware, sitting between product teams and real users. Beware. They enjoy telling you what “the user” wants. Rely on their opinions and direction at your peril.
Users are not product experts.
Users have no idea how to make your product the best it can be. They are not trained in the vagaries of product development. They don’t know a filter from a sort. They don’t know what modals are. They know nothing of the possibilities of technology.
They certainly know what they want to do. And they know what frustrates them. But exactly what to do about this? That’s up to you.
Users are best understood by their behavior.
If you must reduce users to raw facts, focus on their behavior. Look at what they literally do. When you observe people trying to use your product, you learn more about them (and your product) in one hour than your team could potentially surmise in weeks and weeks (if ever).
Most digital product teams don’t observe user behavior. Instead, they rely on glorified guesses, heed stakeholder reports of “user needs,” or simply code default functionality and hope for the best.
That totally works, right?
Users are biologically human.
Users (humans, all) are subject to human limitations. As humans, we have trouble keeping more than 5 or so things in short-term memory. We become confused and delayed by multiple choices. We can’t handle more than one or two actions at a time. These constraints (there are many, many more) affect our ability to use screen-based interfaces.
Things get worse as we age. By the time most people reach 40, our eyesight is compromised. We may become arthritic. Our hearing may degrade. Some of us, regardless of age, are colorblind, have severe motor skill limitations, or have cognitive impairments.
How many digital product teams keep this sort of thing in mind?
Users are not your deus ex machina.
Digital product makers and stakeholders tend to have strong opinions. It seems whenever they want to truly ram home their point du jour, they appeal to the almighty user. “The users will want this,” “the users won’t understand this,” “the users need this content,” and so forth.
Nearly every statement like this reflects an existing desire, something a leader or team member already wants to do. Users here are a stand-in, an excuse, a word people use to get what they want: the god in the machine.
In this model, the strongest voice usually wins. That voice may or may not have much to do with the intent or behavior of actual users.
Users are real people.
Regardless of what you choose to call them, users are simply normal, everyday, flesh and blood people who want to get things done without undue fuss. That’s it. Any approach that compromises this basic truth will also compromise the quality, usability, and effectiveness of your product.
We have so abstracted users to serve the needs of our various disciplines, processes, or models, that we’ve lost the simple truths about them. We have subordinated users to the whims of strong personalities and comfortable development practices. In short, we are lazy in our approach to serving the people who use the things we make.
When you accept that users are real people, when you deeply accept it, you can begin to understand them and their behavior. This in turn will have a seismic, wonderful effect on your digital products. You will never, ever look back, except to wonder why it took so long to change your mind.