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You aren’t your users

I really enjoyed this most recent Under the Radar by Marco Arment and David Smith. It made me think of a lesson I learned earlier in my career as a developer/designer. When you are building an application that meets a need you have, it’s easy to use yourself as a proxy for the product user when designing/developing.

In the best case this approach helps you to develop an application that can delight users by meeting not just their vocal needs but also their unarticulated needs. Because you know yourself and your needs more intimately than anyone else, you can build really cool solutions to problems that your users wouldn’t be able to put into words. Your intuition will guide you to spend more time polishing areas that others wouldn’t and often times that pays off with a better product experience. This is possible for teams that are solving problems they themselves don’t understand, but it requires much more UX/UI spend, lots of prototyping and lots of user testing. Sounds expensive.

So while this approach can be a great time/expense saver for smaller teams or independent developers, it can unfortunately also lead you to a substandard product/market fit. It sounds obvious to say but it’s easy to forget that you aren’t the only type of user your product will have. I can hear echos of this in Marco’s description of his aversion to prompting users by sending push notifications to point out new podcast arrivals for new users. Marco finds those things annoying and maybe a bit needy. Do I find it annoying when a new app prompts me to come back and check out some feature I haven’t used? Yes, but that’s also because I’m a tech nerd and when apps try to tell me how to use them I get annoyed either because “shut up I already know that” or “You think I can’t figure this out on my own”. The much much more common user reaction to a helpful notification is going to be “oh, hey that’s handy I didn’t know that” or worse case “I’ve already given up on that app so this doesn’t matter”.

It’s very easy for us to transpose too many of our own needs and traits onto our pretend users if we aren’t able to be introspective about why we care about the things we care about in the products we are creating. A small amount of time creating personas for some of your anticipated users and where and how you fit into them can go a long way to improving your product.