“Who” Your User Is Doesn’t Matter: Ask “Why” To Build Better Products "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs January 01 2021 True Personas, product design process, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1205 Neon sign saying why Product Management 4.82

“Who” Your User Is Doesn’t Matter: Ask “Why” To Build Better Products


Who people are, their age, gender and habits tell us nothing about their needs. In this post, I’ll explore the idea that it’s when we examine the job they want our product to do that we really learn about these different things.

In a competitive environment, the reasons why people choose our product over others are nuanced. Will they complete the onboarding process or abandon it? Will they become regular users or never open our app again? The decisions that our users make are usually made because of something small, a subtle difference that’s difficult to detect. Which means the niche where we, as product people, can make any difference at all is small.

So, if the nuances that differentiate our product from others are so small, it means we need to work even harder to develop the best possible solution to the problem. We need to dig a little deeper. This means focusing not on who the users are, but what they actually need. That’s where we start when we want to make a real difference.

What happens when you ask “who”?

This is how many projects begin, by asking “who” instead of “why”. It seems logical, doesn’t it? The more you learn about your users’ lives, habits and attitudes, the clearer you’re able to deduce what your product should be like. So, often large groups of potential users are gathered, then divide into segments according to socio-demographic data such as age, income and occupation. Then the groups are broken down further based on the common values and habits within their specific area or environment.

After that, we create fictitious personalities that combine the segment’s defined characteristics. You’ll recognize these as personas. They are intended to make the data more manageable and to enable us to be more empathetic through our design process.

For a flight booking app, Marcus and Stefanie could be two of our segments. Marcus is the young and adventurous backpacker, a student who’s flexible but with a small budget. Stefanie is a successful middle-aged manager who likes to be comfortable. What does Marcus need when booking a flight? And what are Stefanie’s goals when planning a trip?

Unfortunately, often our personas aren’t actually left to answer those questions. As product people, we quickly provide the answers ourselves – and we project them. Even if we interview real people who resemble our proxy personas, we can’t assume that all the other people within the segment would answer the questions similarly. Such inferences – those with similar characteristics pursue similar goals and behave similarly – are tricky to make.

So, What’s the Problem?

In short, knowing “who” the user is doesn’t tell us what they need.

Personas are designed to be a symbol for all the people they represent within their segment. But these personas remain fiction – and can be a bit arbitrary. Because they are created by embellishing the underlying data, everyone sees something different depending on their own personal experience. The supposed familiarity – “oh, my neighbor is like that too” – is misleading. Especially if you think you know these “types”, the risk for wrong assumptions increases exponentially. And if you don’t know them, you have to rely on plausibility anyway.

The assumptions become even shakier if you consider that we deduce their underlying motivations from the characteristics and attitudes of the personas. We can’t even do that with real people. Behavioural psychology teaches us that circumstances and motivation shape people’s actions, not their character traits. So everything we conclude about people’s needs and goals when we base them on personas remains a projection. And not an accurate one. Which is why asking “who” and then crafting intricate user segments does little to help us.

How exactly can we explore the “why”?

It is not easy to figure out what motivates people. Even when we directly ask them, our user’s motivations can often still remain unclear. That’s why it’s important that we change our perspective. We can uncover the “why” by examining the specific situation where the product comes into play. The jobs-to-be-done theory, for example, shows how this can be done systematically. Fundamental to this, is the idea that people commission products to do a job. The idea may seem strange at first. But this perspective helps us focus on the essentials. Our product is the means to an end, it has a job: But what job? What is the need behind the mission? When does it show itself? And above all: in which situation? Why do alternative solutions fail? And what could entice our users to explore a new route?

We have to look at the situation. What are the events that led our users here? We have to explore an experience with all the impulses, needs, obstacles and wishes it reveals. This is the only way to identify concrete requirements and undiscovered potential.

Why we need to focus on the “job”

Understanding the “job” opens your mind to all the possibilities. Our competitors are often slightly different than we assume at first glance. A prominent example is Netflix. “Really, we compete with everything you do to relax. We compete with video gaming. We compete with drinking a bottle of wine. That’s a particularly tough one!” CEO Reed Hastings is quoted as saying in the book Competing Against Luck, and Reed who knows what job Netflix is competing for: to entertain and relax people. Movies and series are just one of many ways to get the job done.

The company has made the move from an online video store shipping DVDs to a video-on-demand platform and has continued to evolve into a content producer. Through all the metamorphosis, the job has always remained the same. Today, we still consume Netflix via a screen. Whenever and wherever we want to switch off from everyday life. It should be as convenient as possible. Maybe even easier than uncorking a bottle of wine.

Making the right kind of difference

Most products differ at most in nuances. That’s also the case with Netflix: series, movies, shows. There’s nothing here that we can’t get from other products. So in the end, we compete for the best user experience. How can we create the best user experience? By learning about the situation in which our product does its job and understanding the actual job that we’re competing for.

The fact that we are able to sit on the couch on a Saturday morning, not moving until the sun has set and until we’ve consumed an entire 10 episode “mini-series” is the perfect example. Netflix gave us what we were looking for by introducing Auto Play and the opportunity to skip the opening and closing credits. Now we don’t even have to fight our inner sloth! Brilliant.

So while many product people take the time to assign their target audience to socio-demographic segments, we divide users by their jobs. We group together everyone who has a common concern that we’d like to help them address. Focusing on the job gives us scope to satisfy the user’s needs and interests down to the last minute detail. And that makes all the difference.