What does “user” mean?

“Users might want to customize their font”


“If I was the user, I would want to order things by process ID”


“Users want to see a high-level dashboard of the finances”


“Users are going to want to put things on SharePoint with one click”


“Our users need to be able to create different roles for access to SharePoint”


These were all phrases I heard about “the user” for a single product.

Do you notice anything a little odd about these?

Do they sound like they are talking about different people?    That’s because they are.

The problem with talking about “the user” is that the image that people have in their mind when they talk about them is different for everyone.


Is it this guy?







Or these guys?







Or this lady?







Or these ladies?

startup-photos (1)






If there are 50 people working on a product, there are usually about 100 different ideas about who “the user” or “the customer” is.

Not having a common understanding of the customer leads to the soul sucking scourge of product teams:  Meetings where you make no decisions.

Ever been in meetings that go on and on in endless circles about what “the user” wants?  That’s because people don’t agree on who the user is or what they want to accomplish.   If Bob thinks “the user” wants X and Mary thinks “the user” wants Y, how do you decide?  Usually by whoever yells the most.  Or worse, you make both X and Y which is almost never the right decision and leads to feature bloat and confusing software.

In enterprise and B2B systems the landscape is even more complicated because there are always multiple roles using the system, which doubles your pain.

So what to do about it?

Many organizations use customer personas (an avatar that represents your target user).  But there is an important catch with personas that often gets overlooked: if they aren’t based on actual real, breathing customers, you won’t be any further ahead.  You’ll just end up in endless meetings about whether or not the personas are really valid, thus replacing circular meetings about product features with circular meetings about personas.

I believe this was 7th level of hell in Dante’s Inferno.

While personas have their place, in practice they can often get caught up in political turf wars with different factions advocating for different personas, or lobbying to have certain needs “added” to the persona to make it fit conveniently with the product roadmap.

There is a better way.

Hands down, the most efficient path for aligning your product team around the customer is to share the actual Voice of the Customer with them.  That means inviting them to listen to customer interviews, and to participate in the research activities.  Show them videos, have them listen to audio recordings, read them direct quotes.  Do whatever you can to have them hear the customer in their own words.

I’ve seen it over and over again.  Teams that have an opportunity for direct observation of customers will have a better shared understanding of the customer and make better decisions.  Don’t just take my word for it.  In my interviews with leaders in B2B tech, I’ve heard this advice from people like Pradeep GanapathyRaj at Microsoft, and Mark Amszej from CDK Global.

And, here is the nice bonus. Not only will the decisions be better, they will happen faster, which means spending less time in frustrating meetings.

So the next time you have a conversation with a customer, think about how you can include the product team in that conversation, and watch those calendar slots start to free up.

Photo credit:  Shutterstock, StartupStockPhotos