Representative Users – Pitfalls, Alligators and Gold

End user knowledge is the linchpin of product design.  Incorporate that knowledge, you’ll more than likely you have a better chance of usability, adoption, and overall success.  Sideline end user knowledge, you’ll almost certainly enter a world of pain from where Walter Sobchak would not even want to enter.  So, what are we to do when we know we need this knowledge, but don’t have the resources…is there a compromise?  In the harsh realistic world, void of unicorns (UX or other) and leprechauns, there will always be a time when we must rely on representative users to help us make semi-informed decisions.

Relying on representative users (RUs) can be beneficial; I’m not saying the knowledge and advice gleaned from their experience isn’t valuable.  However, this approach of using their input as the sole source of end user knowledge will come with risks and these risks should be recognized/accepted early on by all stakeholders (especially those directly responsible for the product).  Representative user input can never replace the value/knowledge gained from even minimal end user interaction.  One of the most significant pitfalls of relying on RUs is you are basing design decisions on someone’s experience; this experience may be vast or may be minimal.  Or worse, the alligators of this metaphor, your RU may be misinformed.  More often than not, the people you’re working with are not trained observers or researchers; they’re business/ marketing people who perceive products and users from a completely different perspective.  Varied perspective is a positive input into our process, we need that multifaceted view to balance the overall approach and achieve a compromise that produces a usable product that is cost-effective and marketable.  However, we need to know the RU observational perspective can be a contributor to risk just as much as reward!

So then…how do we gauge the level of knowledge and trust our RUs are providing useful input?  Before any project, the team should have a basic understanding of the target audience. If you don’t know the answers and your RU cannot address the following basic questions, in my opinion, you’re off to a world of pain.  This is not an exhaustive list, more a litmus test – please share other questions that you find useful:

  • Who are the target users of this solution? How many are there, how different are they across environments/locales, what specifically are their roles, the types of tasks they perform, frequency of those tasks?
  • Are there special needs of users in the population?
  • What is the defined business problem being solved by the proposed product or enhancement, why is this important to the target users and/or business?
  • What are the primary use cases that will be driving the product/enhancement?
  • How do users commonly interact with the product (desktop, mobile, laptop, etc.)?

Now that you’ve got these questions answered – Document and share with the team!  During design discussions, refer back to these questions/answers as the drivers for decisions that are being made!  Do not get caught up in the “What-Ifs” that kill progress.  These answers will help the team stay focused on the problems that you’re trying to solve.  They’re gold!


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