The User Is Not Like Me

The user is not like me. August 25, 2003. It was the first day of my senior year at Carnegie Mellon University. It was the day I learned the mantra that would shape my career.

The user is not like me. Words uttered by Bonnie John, my professor of 05-410 Introduction to HCI Methods (now called User-Centered Research and Evaluation). On that first day and in many subsequent classes, she made us repeat it back to her over and over again. Not only is it the motto of CMU’s HCI department, Bonnie ensured it would become our north star.

The user is not like me. Over the years, I’ve recited these words to colleagues and clients, peers in the community and those I’ve mentored. I continue to believe it is the founding principle of the entire User Experience discipline and I spread the message like a missionary.

The user is not like me. When I found the notebook yesterday where I had written this for the first time, I noticed an explanatory note just above it:

Expert blind spot: “Intuitions are fast, but might be wrong.” — [Psychology professor] Ken Koedinger

The user is not like me. Some designers don’t hold this truth to be self-evident. They claim that the best user experiences are “for us by us” — created by people who actually are like their users, so they can use their intuitions rather than reason to design products with the greatest impact. But are the proponents of self-design suggesting that all businesses should be in service to their own communities? Or only that the “best” businesses are? Self-design is self-satisfying, but it disregards the needs of the greater population, neglects the greater good.

The user is not like me. Mustn’t we acknowledge that most of us don’t work for companies who serve anyone like us? Shouldn’t we recognize the benefit of an outside perspective?

The user is not like me. Our organizations are in a position to make other people’s lives and work easier and more fulfilling using the collective knowledge we’ve accumulated, our diverse perspectives and skills, and the resources that are available to us — but not to them.

The user is not like me. So long as you acknowledge that you are not your user, you will not make the mistake of designing for yourself. You will not assume that you know everything about your target audience. You will study them until you do. You will strive to gain understanding in an effort to make informed design decisions that are not based on your own preconceived notions and perceptions of the world. You will build empathy for your users, within yourself and amongst your team. You will slowly train your intuition to embody what the user needs. The user will be inside of you, but they won’t be you. You won’t be them. Empathic consciousness is achievable.

The user is not like me. No matter how much they seem like me, they are not like me — for the mere fact that I am in the position of creating the thing that they will eventually use. That automatically makes them nothing like me, regardless of what we may have in common. They don’t know what I know. They don’t believe what I believe. They haven’t experienced what I’ve experienced. And vice versa is especially true. They are them and I am me, and the more I put myself aside and get to know who they really are, the more I’ll be able to see that. The more I’ll be able to give them not just what they want, but what they need.

The user is not like me. It works every time.

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  1. says

    Another great post, Whitney. I’m wondering – have you found a way/worked with teams that have managed to make good use of historical user base knowledge in the process of further learning about their users and (re)crafting a product? I’m imagining a team that has internalized various feedback from users over time.
    In cases where the team creating a product does overlap in meaningful ways with a user base, do you feel like there is a way to harness the wisdom there in conjunction with hearing some outside perspectives?

  2. says

    At the risk of picking nits, I *strongly* favor “You are not the user” over “The user is not like me”. The point of this dictum in UX practice is to defend against the natural tendency to extend from your own experience. You Are Not The User does that job without excluding yourself or making an Other of the user. Even if You Are Not *The* User, you may be *a* user. Moreover, even when You Are Not The User, you may be *like* the user in any number of ways. The user changes from project to project, and the User Is Not Like Me feels like too strong a formulation for many cases.

  3. says

    One of the most brilliant and poignant blog posts I’ve yet seen on the subject of UX. Ms. Hess has a knack for going right to the heart of the matter and taking it to those that would put expedience before the user. Bravo.

  4. Sarah L says

    This reminds me of a similar mantra taught by my Principles of Human Factors professor, Dr. Shannon Morgan:
    Know thy user, and you are not thy user.

    It’s something all too easy to ignore and forget, because doing hard research is so much more difficult and time-consuming than simply looking within yourself for the answers, but the concept is really vital.


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  3. […] Whitney Hess, a user experience consultant, shared her insights with me about this site. She co-authored the post with me, and does brilliant work on this topic. (You can read her most recent blog post, and discover the mantra that has helped to shape her career, here.) […]

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