A common flaw in customer understanding

November 13, 2013 By Mark Hurst 4 Comments

Do you ever notice how some executives say “users” when they mean “I”? For example, you might have heard an executive make an assertion about “what users really want.” Make a quick substitution, and it becomes “what I really want.”

“Users want feature X,” where X is the executive’s pet project, might be better stated as “I want feature X.”

Dislike works as well: for example, “Users don’t like skeumorphic design” turns into “I don’t like skeumorphic design.”

This obviously represents a flawed understanding of what users want. Yet it’s common enough, and some executives even defend this way of thinking. “I use our product, so I’m a customer myself,” they say, “and so what I want is, by definition, what the customer wants.”

Let’s state a rule of thumb: if you’re inside the company, you don’t represent the customer. You might use the product, the app, the service, whatever, outside working hours – but you’re not the customer. You can’t, by yourself, fully understand what customers want.

There’s a better way to understand what users want, and that’s to actually go and find out. You are not the customer. Don’t say “users” when you mean “I.” Instead, get outside the company walls and observe customers directly. You might be surprised at what you discover.

And, as always, contact us if Creative Good can help.


  1. Dana Gelman November 13, 2013 10:45 am

    The first thing we learned in grad school at Carnegie Mellon was the mantra, “I am not the user.” But I have to disagree with your statement that if you’re inside the company you don’t represent the customer. While user experience is about interactions with a product, customer experience is about interactions with an organization. That means that it should be built into the infrastructure, systems, and values of the company — even if you are not in a customer-facing role. Everyone should always embody the customer.

    Comment >
  2. Jerome Pineau November 13, 2013 12:00 pm

    This is sound advice. I’ve always been amazed by internal pronouncement pertaining to what “users want/like” not back with cold, hard data or people out there in the field. Lot of this has to do with drinking your own koolaid as well :)

    Comment >
  3. Tami Reiss November 14, 2013 10:28 am

    Simple and smart. Great post.
    I would say that there are some teams within a company that are well suited to represent the customer, though they are generally not tapped for help. They are the support/help desk teams. They interact with customers every day and know about their frustrations. Analyzing their tickets can be a really great way of understanding the customer before designing solutions.

    Comment >
  4. Leanne Waldal November 18, 2013 7:33 pm

    User and customer aren’t always the same – you use these terms interchangeably in this article. That’s another problem for some executives (depending on the company, products, services): not understanding the difference between their users and their customers and not understanding when the customer is or is not the user.

    Comment >