We hear lots of talk about the so-called ‘ideal user’ in this business. Whether it’s during our initial contact with a client or during subsequent discovery meetings where managers and other client-side stakeholders get involved, the term usually comes up at least a few times during discussions of who the product is for.

Surprisingly, and contrary to what you may have learned, it can often be a mistake to give so much attention to that so-called ‘ideal user’. Here’s why, how it happens, and how you can avoid making this common mistake that so many software product developers who came before you have made.

Ideal Users and Power Users

The ideal user is one user who represents the needs and desires of the most typical user of a software product. To envision such a user, developers and designers often create a fictional compilation of characteristics that they draw upon to imagine needs, and then design or develop with that fictional character in mind. Sometimes called a ‘model user’, this fictional user can be compiled using data from real users, amassed into a single entity for simplicity’s sake. Having this model in mind when making decisions during the development process helps teams stay UX-focused and “customer-centric”.

Then there are the power users. These are users who command a lot of attention during Discovery and consequently receive a corresponding degree of focus during development. They are indeed important users whose needs should be met. They are the users whose command of processes and systems is advanced, whose interactions with the product will be deeper and more complex. They are typically people who hold managerial positions. Or they’ve attained mastery of the process you’re automating because they’ve worked at the client’s company for a very long time.

Basically, a Power User is anyone who “owns” the process that you’re designing and developing for.

The Problem With Power Users & Ideal Users

Very often, it’s those managers who are giving the development team the answers they require during the Discovery phases where requirements are being drawn up. You’ve probably been there: you have a new project and perhaps you ask the client to generate a list of users for the product. Your intention is to conduct user research so you can develop the right product for the right people that has the right features, etc.

So you ask for the list, assuming that you will receive a complete list of lots of different types of users. If it’s an enterprise job for internal use, you might expect a list that contains, for example, various types of front-line employees, managers, marketing, sales, or whoever will be needing the product to do their job. If it’s a customer-facing app the client desires, you’d expect to see a variety of different types of consumers the company is planning to target with the app.

And very often, what you get back is a surprisingly short list — or worse yet, a list of one: that ideal user.

That’s a good start but somewhere along the line, it’s a developer’s job to ensure that not just that single, so-called ‘ideal user’ is satisfied with the product we deliver, but all the important users’ needs are covered as well.

Why Clients Give Such Short User Lists

Very often, the client will assign the task (of communicating user needs to the development team) to their resident ‘expert’. He/she is their expert in the processes that the new product will incorporate and cover. He/she’s either been with the client’s company for a long time or he’s a highly respected professional who specializes in the process as a career so is the one they send to you to draw up the list of needs and requirements.

Another reason this power user is sent out to represent the ideal user and user needs is that it costs money to have an entire group of employees take time off their routines to sit around and talk about user needs. So that Power User becomes the Ideal User.

Again, this is a mistake and here’s why.

Why It’s Risky to Concentrate on a Too-Short List of Users (or Just One)

Hopefully, you’ll be interviewing tons of users for your user research. The power user (aka ‘ideal user’) may even turn out to give the least-useful information. To build a great product, you’ll want a diverse set of data covering all the users you can possibly fathom. Whether or not you prioritize all their needs will be a later decision but at least you do the work of gathering a complete set of data at the outset.

Otherwise, you’re relying on data from a Power User who, by definition, may not want things to change. They are, after all, the ‘expert’ in existing systems, right? Sometimes the “given” list of users is created by a manager/Power User who has a narrow vision when it comes to what the product should be. They are so involved in the old processes that they forget that maybe the new processes and therefore the new product should focus on a wider assortment of users so that it can work for everyone and therefore achieves more goals like improving efficiency.  

The Final Word on Users

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, the ideal number of users for a usability study is 5 for each persona that you or the client has created.  This varies by the product, by the client, and by the development team, of course, but it’s far better than just one ideal user or a Power User or two.

Want to learn more about our process for interviewing users and making great products? Stay tuned for our next post or browse the archives — we’re always sharing our thoughts and hope you will too!