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We get occasional questions about designing for the average user, but the term is bandied around pretty often - especially by clients who want to design their product or application so that it can be used by this average user.

And yet, how can you design for this average user without actually knowing the persona of the average user rather intimately?

The truth perhaps is that you cannot really use the term average user without at least specifying some context for the product you want them to use, and probably the more you think about it, the more criteria you come up with.

For example: You might find people saying: Well of course when I said average user, I meant average mobile / mac / ipad / Windows / Word / etc etc user/

So - who is this mystical average user - does such a thing even exist?

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I think the "average user" most often means either "a non-technical user", or "most users" rather than "average" in any statistical or qualitative sense. –  Ben Brocka Sep 30 '11 at 20:14
    
Unless it's a specific audience, I would imagine the "intent" of the average user moniker is the same as the lucrative TV market: 18-35 years old. –  LarsTech Sep 30 '11 at 20:31
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There is no spoon... I mean user. –  JohnGB Sep 30 '11 at 22:58
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This is the best-kept secret in the industry, but he actually exists and I have his phone number. When in financial difficulties, I pimp him out to the highest bidder. –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Oct 1 '11 at 9:10
    
UX needs its own Joe the Plumber. Remember that? –  Rahul Oct 1 '11 at 10:48

5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

You're right on. There is no such thing as the average user. It is all dependent on context. But that's what our job is. When a client or colleague starts talking about the average user, we need to start asking the right questions to get more information.

You need to essentially build that persona (if even just implicitly) for the system you are working with.

Also, as Ben mentions in his comment, there is the "generic" average user, which sometimes may truly be all they are looking for, but you really need to find out that for sure so you don't get burned in the end.

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The average user varies depending on the task at hand. It's a mathematical description: the average user is the demographic which makes up the largest chunk of your product's users, whatever that product may be.

If you're developing a FPS, your average user is a moderately experienced gamer. If you're developing a financial data interface, your average user is a finance associate. If you're designing Facebook, your average user is someone with minimal computer skills.

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This is really a case of asking the wrong question, as there is no average user. Instead, we should be focused on our target audience's expectations. Our audience could be a very diverse group of people, with varying backgrounds and various levels of computer expertise. Some may be PC users with an expectation for the close button on a window to be in the upper-right hand corner. Some may be Mac users and might be confused when instructions tell them to right-click something.

Every design decision should be tailored not to some 'average' user, but to your actual audience such that the most people possible understand it.

All said, you do the best you can in your first design. And then you can follow that up with usability testing and A/B testing. And then you can make your incremental improvements.

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Humorous answer: the average user is a mythical being who always agrees 100% with all of the opinions of the co-worker currently imagining this instance of the average user. As such, he is a weapon wielded with great ferocity in design meetings.

Real answer: as many have pointed out, there is no such thing, or at the very least it is context-dependent. The real question is whether there is a better term. I would say that there is no generic term - there are many different types of personas, and all personas must derive from business goals.

The list of possible business goals is endless, and the list of persona types is equally endless. Probably the simplest and most enduring is translating the business goal of "grow" into an average user we call the "prospect". A business intending to acquire new customers must make an effort to understand the characteristics of non-customers and whether there is a group of them who have needs that the business could feasibly meet. They could be grouped on needs, attitudes, financial situation, geography, type of household, a million other attributes, but once having identified a relevant group, it's necessary to flesh out the picture to understand how to solve those needs.

For example, a brand-new pizza parlor would probably define a few common factors for its prospects - people who eat out or order food; people who live in a certain area; people who haven't heard of the brand-new pizza parlor. From there, the owner might sift through Yelp reviews, knock on a few doors, or stand out in a shopping center to ask people a few questions in exchange for a coupon, and the characteristics they learn about will hopefully tell them something about how they can make sure people find out about them, and what they look for in a place to eat. Now he knows his average user.

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The use of personas - at any stage in the development - is an useful development. I think the only answer is to define these in some form very early, and challenge people who ask about the "average user" to help you define the persona that they are talking about. It makes it a more positive response than "there is no average user, dumbass", and may help you develop the personas better with this information, and help the clients understand what they actually mean.

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