The great UX revolution of the last decade has brought a wonderful change to the way we design and build software. No longer do we design around the constraints of the technology, blindly mirroring database schemas in view hierarchies and other such crimes against humanity. Now we talk about the end-users of our software, and design around them and their needs. We figure out what they need and then shape the technology around them. That’s great.

What’s even better is that it isn’t just weary UX designers trying to get the voice of the user heard. The principles of user-centred design have filtered into every crevice of the development world. Hour upon hour of project time spent talking about our users. What do they want? What do they expect? What do they need?

It’s great, right? Really, really great.

But there’s a problem.

What’s the Problem?

When we talk about users, we tend to talk as though they’re all identical. How many times have you heard these sorts of things said:

  • “Will users find that feature?”
  • “I think users will get confused by that”
  • “Users won’t fill in that long form! They’ll get bored”

As though it’s all or nothing. Either all users will find that feature, or none will. But users aren’t identical, they’re all different. They differ along various dimensions relevant to the design process. Some people are more patient than others. Some are more technically proficient. Some people are more tolerant, or more pedantic.

Some people are more motivated to complete a task than others. And those same people may be less motivated at different times.

A Better Question

The correct answer to the question ‘Will users find that feature?’ is: ‘some will, some won’t’. Instead of talking about users as an homogenous blob of clones, try instead to imagine a great seething horde of them. All in different shapes, sizes and odours. Every user in the horde is a unique constellation of points across sliding scales of patience, tolerance and motivation. Each with slightly different goals and different ideas about what counts as a successful session with your software.

Instead of asking “Will users find that feature?” ask “How many users will find that feature?”. Is that the most we could hope for? What about the others – can we help them in another way?

When looked at that way, your user base becomes more interesting and your responses to the questions of how to build your software become more nuanced.

Whither Personas?

The sharp-eyed among you – UX hawks, I’ll call you – will be saying ‘hellloooo?? personas??’ possibly in an annoying valley girl accent. You’re absolutely right, hawks. Gold Star for you (but drop the valley girl schtick; it isn’t 1995). Use of personas naturally leads to this more sophisticated and nuanced view of your users.

But not every project has the bandwidth for creating personas. Even when they do exist, personas don’t always find their way into the far reaches of the development process. There are always meetings and discussions that take place without them. And that’s when this ‘homogeneity of users’ error starts creeping in. Encouraging widespread adoption of the question form “How many users…?” can help to bring the essence of persona-thinking to the wider project group while keeping the discussions lean and responsive.

Ross strives to call himself an interaction designer but he’s swimming against the tide; everyone else calls him the UX guy. It doesn’t really matter, he just carries on thinking about how to make software that’s great to use.