On UX: You Are Not the User

Whether you’re a software developer, visual designer, or project manager, learning about UX can be summed up in one mantra: you are not the user. It may sound simple or terse, but it’s something I always think to myself when I’m designing a product.

Your heart will be in the right place if you remember that you’re creating products for other people.

When you use digital technology every day, it’s easy to make assumptions that align with your own experiences. The tech industry can be a little inside baseball at times, making sense to software practitioners and creating confusion for everyone else. You may not understand concepts like Fitt’s Law, Human-Computer Interaction, the User-Centered Design Process, or other hyphenated subjects within UX, but your heart will be in the right place if you remember that you’re creating products for other people.

It’s About a Person in Context

Understanding a person within context is the most powerful starting place for creating a new product. This knowledge will drive the vision and define the scope of your project, giving you a confident platform to stand on. In a “feature first” industry, sometimes it’s easy to overlook the goals your users are trying to accomplish with your product. Developing insight into how you can improve task flow and performance for particular users in their environments will make your apps more useful. Instead of thinking of cool features you can cram into your product, think about what kind of interesting new tasks or performance metrics your targeted audience will be able to achieve with your design work.

Design a Word Processor

A perfect example of the “you are not the user” mantra comes from a design challenge I was given during an interview with the Windows Phone team at Microsoft. I was asked to design a word processor.

If you think for a moment, you’re probably imagining some sort of windowed app on a desktop with a tool bar at the top and a blinking cursor amidst blocks of text. Seems simple enough. Once I started asking questions about the potential users within a particular context, we decided to whiteboard an app that functions as a typing tool for children under the age of 7. Take your Word clone and throw it out the window.

My final result was a touch interface for a tablet that allowed kids to create simple cards with pictures and words from a limited word bank. The goal was to help kids increase their vocabulary and put their new words to use. You don’t have to understand functional flow diagrams to understand that the design for this particular word processor was going to be wildly different from what might have immediately come to mind.

Experiences Over Features

Regardless of which part of the tech sector you work in, understanding that you’re not the user can get you started on the right path with your next new project. The next time you have yet another great idea for an app, think about how you can help people do cool things instead of making an app with flashy features.

Let me know how you consider the end user when you design a new product.