Looking at Users

(Note: If you are reading this in email, I recommend reading it on the site, as this post has informative images)

People look at people differently. Thus they come to radically different conclusions, and get different ideas about them.

Users as numbers and dots

Some (like marketers) see users/people/humans as pure abstractions. Dots, or numbers.


In this view, there is no difference between any two users. They are infinitesimal dots. The stories and finer details of individuals are washed out. On the plus side, you get a very broad view, a chance to look at factors which influence not just individuals, but whole populations.

It is also easy to see why marketers choose the language of ‘segments’, ‘buckets’, ‘samples’ and ‘funnels’. It is intuitive to think of abstract entities in such terms. Quite hard to think of living, breathing, emotional humans in such terms.

For them, users are the key drivers of funding (and revenue). Number of users has a direct link with the value of a company, and so this view provides the lever to increase company value.

Outside of companies, economists, and policymakers also view people like this. The following graph from Gapminder shows the expressive power of this abstraction – populations of whole countries shown as circles, and moving across time with income and life expectancy of people.

Movement of Indian & Dutch populations through time. Taken from Gapminder

In these views, the user’s immediate context – which influences their behavior, is abstracted out. You probably behave differently being on a train versus being in a car, and much differently alone versus being in a group of friends. Those details are ignored.

Users as inputs and outputs of technical systems

Now, when technical architects design the engineering back-end of a system, they see the user as a ‘stick figure’, part of a bigger technical system. Here the user has an abstract body, which is more than a dot, but not really different.

Technical Human 1
Code and URL seem to go ‘into’ the User

For them, the logic of the system has first priority. The system needs to work flawlessly – everything depends on the system doing its job. The user is just another piece of the system which has its own inputs and outputs, and any other detail about the user ignored.

Maybe it is no coincidence that the popular comics xkcd, which shows people as stick figures, is made by a (former) programmer at NASA.

Never gets old. Source: xkcd

In this environment too, the context of the person is ignored. There is nothing in the above comic which tells where these people are. And they have no names, no details of clothes, no character.

Users as anonymous people in a well defined physical context

We get first view of people’s context through architects and urban planners. And context dominates.

A Cinema and Arts Centre from portfolio of Pam Pan. Source/Credits: Here

Here we see people in slightly more detail. They now have bodies which are more than stick figures. They have clothes and faces. They have physical positions like standing or walking. But they still are anonymous beings, not characters.

To some extent, industrial designers, especially car designers, also look at people like this. They have bodies and a clear, sharply outlined physical context, but no faces and no names.

Car Design.png
People in a car. Source: Renault Design Award 2017 

For such designs, there is stress on the user’s experience, but the context dominates, and for car design, the focus is definitely the car’s design itself.

At this point, if you scroll up and see the Google analytics graph, you will see how far we have come in granularity. These are people in car, more than numbers on Google Analytics.

Users as characters in a story

The field of User Experience design offers another perspective. UX designers create the personas first – the characters of a story. At this level, they have faces and names, but also goals, ambitions, emotions, relationships and physical context.

Storyboard for UX Design. Source: Here

Here, the designers focus on the people’s stories. They sketch out how the characters will behave differently in different contexts. The product itself is less important – only a few details are shown, because the product should fit naturally into the story.

User Interface (UI) designers, on the other hand, focus on the digital product itself. In this sense, they are closer to designers of cars. In their work, the look, feel, finish, and aesthetics matter more than people’s goals and emotions, etc.

Beyond users, actual humans

Finally, artists show us people at the highest fidelity. While UX designers look at personas which are representative of real people, artists look at actual people in all their glory. Portrait artists and photographers show us humans for humans’ sake, and each visual is one person, complete in itself. Art is its own purpose.

She is not a user, not just a human. She is Angelina Jolie. Picture by Annie Leibovitz

Here the person is present in clarity, there are no details of the context. No overall, broad social or economic perspective. These all would distract from the singular focus on the person. It feels weird to think that she too is an infinitesimal dot on some macro-economic graph, but of course she is.

What this all means

Through this exploration I wanted to build an intuition of how different people look at users, and how one can individually develop multiple lenses to look at them. For every such unique lens, one would get different ideas for a product.

The macro marketer can give a clear view on what products are needed, and the detailed story of the UX designer could tell what exact features are needed. If these people can be on the same cohesive team, working on a shared overall vision – there would be a better chance to create wonderful products.

Footnote: I understand that all these jobs are more complex than what I have outlined, I just want to look at the contrasting visual outputs these produce – from graphs to portraits. I also understand that I have missed other key professions like anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, medical doctors, cartoonists, animation artists and literary critics – all of whom have their own lenses of looking at people. Maybe some other time.

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