Beyond the User

Hot Take
The user does not come first. The user is not the center of design. The user is one of many factors in a good product.

Glen Lipka, 2023

I have never liked the terms User-Driven, Data-Driven, and User-Centered. I think it fundamentally weakens the design team and devalues creativity, innovation, inspiration, risk-taking, and experience. I think it misses the point of how great products are developed.

When I worked at Intuit, they said they were “User Driven” and they literally meant “Ask the user what to build and then build exactly that”. It worked (sorta) for the QuickBooks original product. But for most features and services, users are horrible at describing what they want, what they like, what they will buy. You can’t trust what users say.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Actually NOT Henry Ford

“User Centered” is also a problematic phrase for various reasons. For B2B applications, there are other people who matter just as much as the user. Also, many features were priorities based on user-feedback, but actually were bad ideas and led the company to stray from their mission. (Great book on this called Escaping the Build Trap)

Consider two different ways to think about design: Purpose Driven and Ecosystem Centered.

Purpose Driven

What is the true reason your product exists? I don’t mean “to make money” or “to make a user happy”. I mean what does the product literally do. Here are some answers for the products I have worked on.

MarketoTo create and nurture leads for sales to sell to
EngagioTo create and nurture accounts for sales to sell to
Treasure DataTo manage, clean, and transform enterprise data
FalkonryTo detect anomalies in large digital systems
SentinelOneTo protect enterprises from digital threats and infiltration

Notice how they are simple and to the point. A purpose is your ultimate driver. All features contribute eventually to this goal. You would be surprised how many features do not roll up to this purpose. This is exactly how companies lose their way.

You do not need to talk to users to understand your purpose. I understood the mission of each of these companies before I met a single customer. This is often connected to the company mission or vision.

What drives or what remains my touchstone throughout the project is this purpose. But if you drill down a level into what you think about for each project, then I become Ecosystem Centered.

Ecosystem Centered

Users are important, but the company has many different kinds of people to serve. As a designer, you should consider the following other people:

MarketingDoes it “look” valuable?
Product MarketingDoes it compare favorably to the competition?
SalesIs it easy to demonstrate and buy?
TrainingIs it easy to learn?
SupportIs it easy to get help and recover from mistakes?
Customer SuccessIs it easy to upsell and increase value/price?
EngineeringIs it easy to build?
Product ManagementIs it easy to break down to deliver MVP?
OperationsCan you lower Cost of Goods Sold (COGS)?
ExecutivesDoes it tell a story to the investor market?
UsersWould they recommend it to their friends? (NPS)

I think about all of these people for every single feature. Some more than others depending on the project. I meet with these people as much as I meet with users. Users are not always useful.

Example: Let’s say you want to add 2FA (two-factor authentication) to your security system. You should spend time with engineers and security experts to understand how 2FA works, but asking users what they want is a waste of time.

At the end of the day, if you build for users only and ignore the rest of the organization, you will fail as a company. One of my greatest lessons at Marketo was seeing how it truly “takes a village” to raise a business. Designers should incorporate this way of thinking and not obsess only about the user.

We used to have a motto “Easy to buy, easy to learn, easy to use.” – that drove our design philosophy. Design teams need to lead the organization towards this way of thinking. Don’t just obsess about users and do usability testing and UX research as your sole value creation. Think about the whole. This is “Whole product thinking”.

This was a strange post to write because there is so much I could go into and give examples about. Let’s see if this is enough for now.


Whatya think?