You are not the user!

by | 26.05.2022

“You are not the user!” I heard this statement in a discussion a few days ago. In a nutshell, this sentence sums up something that people, companies and our society in general should deal with again and again: Who do we address with our work, for whom do we develop products or services, for whom do we make politics, who should benefit from our actions? For me, the sentence is at the same time a statement, a situation analysis and an appeal.

The user in sight

What is a user? “A user is an operator of a computer or software, the beneficiary of a service, the visitor to a website or the member of an online community or social network.”¹ He or she is a real person who, outside of a human-computer interaction, also goes by the synonymous terms customer, guest, patient, visitor, etc.

The product and service industry addresses users as idea generators, demanders and buyers. As a key user, he or she is the primary contact person when using a product or service. As a power user, he or she possesses special knowledge and skills in the use of products or services compared to average users. And as a proxy user, he or she can empathise well with users’ situations and wishes. In short, there are many useful approaches to keeping users in sight. And many product and service manufacturers are very skilled and experts in this field.

However, there are also many areas and situations in companies where users are not really in focus. In a figurative sense, they are almost conspicuous by their absence. Per se, this might not even be so bad, because: Problem recognised, danger averted. However, it becomes difficult and momentous when this absence is not perceived as a problem in the first place. Let’s take a look at some “typical” situations in organisations to understand the consequences:

The user not in sight

Imagine your company wants to develop an innovative product. You organise workshops and collect ideas. Who evaluates the ideas and who makes the final decision on which idea becomes a product?

Depending on the size of your company, it could be a division manager, a director, a managing director or a board member. Often people with such roles or functions are very experienced and have the nominal authority to make decisions of some consequence. And many want to make such decisions. As understandable as this may seem, it is not right. Unfortunately, in such settings, the idea that is best presented or comes closest to the preferences of the person making the decision often “wins” the contest.

There is only one “instance” that is finally able to validate an idea: the market. Customers, clients, users – no matter what they are called. They are the ones who should and want to use the product later.² They are the ones who expect concrete benefits from the product. The managing director or the board of directors will most probably not be users of your product; they should therefore NOT decide on the idea.³

Unfortunately, examples like this are much more common in companies than they might seem at first glance:

  • The managing director has an intuition at the weekend which function is missing in the software and has it implemented immediately and according to his personal ideas.
  • The marketing manager “believes” that chat functions on websites are a “must-have” and without further ado initiates a tool selection and subsequent implementation.
  • The sales manager reads an article about the advantages of platform sales and after a short research decides to sell the existing product range on a selected platform.
  • The HR management makes the decision to run a campaign for a specific job advertisement on as many job portals as possible, of course always in the specified corporate design, as corporate identity is a high value asset.
  • The board decides to purchase new software so that predefined reports can be generated from all company departments at the push of a button. However, since the users are not involved in the selection process and are left to their own devices to learn the software, acceptance of the software is not given from the beginning.

Presumably, this list can also be supplemented with examples from your company, right?

And you are not the user either!

Finger pointing is easy. The executive management, the marketing management, the sales management, the HR management and the board of directors – in many cases these are the “others” that users overlook or ignore. However, in finger pointing, when the index finger targets the “others”, 3 of the 5 fingers of the hand point in the own direction. You may be an expert, but in many situations you are not the user either.

Here are two small examples:

Imagine a friend asks you for feedback on a job advertisement. A forklift truck operator is wanted. The ad is humorous, but not really written in a politically correct way. Small jokes about New Work (“Only apply with us if you really really want to be a forklift truck operator!”) and other buzzwords (“Mindfulness is important to us, so ideally you should pay attention to the goods when forklifting so that they don’t fall on anyone’s head!”) follow each other.

And now please imagine that a friend asks you for tips on the design of his website. You recognise the structure and menu navigation, the arrangement of the elements and the harmony of the website’s colours. You read the slogan and some of the content and understand the intention of the offer.

How do you evaluate the job advertisement and the website? Perhaps you have experience in designing job advertisements and therefore recognise what is missing (benefits perhaps) and what has been clearly formulated (core working hours, holidays, salary range). You may be familiar with online marketing and can give tips on sliders, call-to-action or contact options. If you are knowledgeable about the situations in question, you are very likely to be a good person to talk to or give feedback to because you can put yourself in the shoes of the forklift truck operator or website visitor. But that doesn’t change one incontrovertible truth: “You are also not the user!” You will most likely not apply for the job of forklift truck operator, nor will you take the first steps towards value-based service commissioning. What matters is what the user, the potential applicant, the possible prospect thinks and consequently does.

Statement, situation analysis and appeal

For me, “You are not the user!” is a statement, situation analysis and appeal all in one. In relation to the individual, to myself, it is a statement. I am neither a forklift truck operator, nor a user of our software, nor a buyer of our service. In relation to the actions of colleagues and superiors, it is often a situation analysis. The management will not use the newly implemented function, the board will not operate the newly purchased software and the marketing management will not chat with their own support or sales.

The statement and situation analysis is followed by the appeal. You may be good at changing perspectives and putting yourself in other people’s shoes – but this cannot replace the user’s perception, experience and expectation. Therefore, talk to your users, customers or guests as often as possible. So ask forklift truck drivers for their opinions on the job advertisement.

Another small addition to the appeal: access to users is sometimes difficult. Help yourself and at least talk to colleagues (also from other companies) who have mastered comparable situations. How? For example, call a company and ask your counterpart in marketing management about their experience in setting up a chat function for the website. I know from my own experience that there are people who are happy to share their experiences. And that makes much more sense than implementing your own assumptions unchecked.



[1] Users and terms with a direct or indirect relationship
[2] Well-known tools include prototypes, minimum viable products or pretotypes.
[3] In such a situation, the tasks and capabilities of the team increasingly come into focus. If the team is able to validate one or more ideas in the market, then it should also be able to make a go/no-go decision. Consequently, however, this raises further questions – e.g. about team composition, financial decision-making power, strategic product and company direction; certainly an interesting topic for another blog post.

The article does not address social situations where laws and regulations are often made “by” people “for” people who are also subject to the laws and rules but are not directly affected by them. Since this can hardly be regulated in any other way due to the diversity of laws, it should make sense to pay attention to a “maximum” integration of the affected users aka citizens in the consultations that take place in advance.

Michael Schenkel has published more articles in the t2informaitk Blog, including

t2informatik Blog: Factors of software acceptance

Factors of software acceptance

t2informatik Blog: Speed as unfair advantage

Speed as unfair advantage

t2informatik Blog: Project Marketing - Do good and talk about it

Project Marketing – Do good and talk about it

Michael Schenkel
Michael Schenkel

Head of Marketing, t2informatik GmbH

Michael Schenkel has a heart for marketing - so it is fitting that he is responsible for marketing at t2informatik. He likes to blog, likes a change of perspective and tries to offer useful information - e.g. here in the blog - at a time when there is a lot of talk about people's decreasing attention span. If you feel like it, arrange to meet him for a coffee and a piece of cake; he will certainly look forward to it!​