More often than not, the person using an application is represented by an icon that’s profoundly vague – monotone and devoid of any expression. This icon could not be further from the truth. The User is a unique individual with their own set of expertise and experience. They think. They feel. They probably drink less coffee than I do.

It's my first day on a new project and the first question I'm asked by the big man (or woman) upstairs is "what can you tell me about who's going to be using this application?"

It's a good question, and, of course, my answer at this point is "let me do some research and I'll get back to you." Of course, I have a drawer full of blank questionnaires and some emails from the project-lead, but beyond that everything is uncharted. I feel this is the case for many people in this field.

There are really three aspects to this question:

  1. How do I best communicate with my hallowed Users and develop a relationship with them that's advantageous towards my goals?

  2. What is important for me to know about them? Monitor size? Blood type? Favorite band? What, no matter the project, is essential knowledge? What else falls under the "it depends" category?

  3. Which tools are available to make this process awesome for everyone? What is a "must-have" for creating that link between you and the User group?

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    This is a lot of questions in one. It's too broad to answer really. You may want to dig into "About Face"; it covers all these topics and gives you methods to do it from a more research oriented perspective as well. – Wendy Wojenka Feb 26 '18 at 16:28
  • @wanda: I tried my best to see if there was any duplicates and couldn't find any. – invot Feb 26 '18 at 16:33
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    I think the reason why you didn't find duplicates is because this question is way too large for a Q and A format. It's more suited for a book to answer, as @Wanda mentioned. This reads like "How do I do user testing" and that's a big topic. – maxathousand Feb 26 '18 at 22:27
  • I guess I'm confused as to why asking a general question is a bad thing. – invot Feb 27 '18 at 15:14
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    Excellent question: Many are the products that have died horribly due to companies not 'understanding' their customers ! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Coke – PhillipW Mar 2 '18 at 18:25

To address these questions, you need to understand the 'persona' first.

The personas give you insights about their doings, feelings, flows when reaching the solution that you gave. When you provide the answer for them to make them happier and better than before, you are giving the solution differently for each persona.

When you set the persona, you can address your solutions to their problems. You can draw a flow to reach their 'Goals.' When you define clear persona definitions and the goals for every persona, you can ask these questions more easily:

• Why your user need your product to solve the problem with your product? • What is the motivation? • How this persona acts when solving the problem with using my product? • How their roles at their company affects usage of my product?

You can make assumptions for creating these personas, according to your knowledge, however, collecting data and analyzing them makes you develop personas more accurate than assumptions. When you create personas, you can provide ideas about the flow that makes personas to reach their goals.


Rather than researching the question "Who will be using the app?" I like to discover what people's tasks are: "What are people trying to accomplish?" From there you can design the app to support those tasks. Everything else is secondary to user tasks.

The best way I've found to do that is to shadow users. Go to them, wherever they're working, and watch them do their thing. Questionnaires and surveys aren't as good for this since they rely on people recalling what they do and describing it to you in some way that, naturally, falls short of what actually happens.

There's a lot more to this, of course, so you'll have to do more research on this method. Search the web on "contextual inquiry" for more info.


It's my first day on a new project and the first question I'm asked by the big man (or woman) upstairs is "what can you tell me about who's going to be using this application?"

If they are asking you this question; then they've skipped the first stage of New Product Development.

Before developing any new product (not just digital projects) it's a good idea to ask a market research firm to establish whether there's a market for the proposed product. This is done initially by Qualitative Market Research


Qualitative market research is done by researchers whose job is qualitative market research. Just because someone in your company has an idea for a new product, it doesn't mean that Joe Public will have any interest in it all.

History is littered with expensive projects which "seemed like a good idea at the time". Here's a digital example: £125 million burnt in 6 months. And a site that needed broadband, before most of the population actually had broadband...


So when you get your 'new project', someone in marketing should have done their homework first, and it is they who should be telling you broadly who is the target market and what the target market want from the product.

Then, you can get into the detail of digital development (personas and the like).


Getting to know your users means getting to know their motivations and goals. A common pitfall is to focus on tasks that users engage in, rather than their goals in performing those tasks. Real insight into these topics is difficult to achieve through data from surveys alone; you need to venture out and talk to users directly.

About Face (the book I recommended in a comment to your question) phrases it quite eloquently:

Any attempt to reduce human behavior to statistics is likely to overlook important nuances, which can make an enormous difference to the design of products. Quantitative research can only answer questions about “how much” or “how many” along a few reductive axes. Qualitative research can tell you about what, how, and why in rich detail that is reflective of the actual complexities of real human situations. Social scientists have long realized that human behaviors are too complex and subject to too many variables to rely solely on quantitative data to understand them.

Two ways to get the information you need:

  • User interviews
  • User observation (shadowing)

User interviews

If you are redesigning or refining an existing product, it is important to speak to both current and potential users. If you start fresh, you'll have to seek out people that match your potential users' goals. While interviewing them, it's important to get a feeling for the context of how the product is/will be used. You need to know when, why, and how the product is or will be used. You'll also get a better grasp about expectations, problems and perhaps even frustrations that exist.

User Observations

Most people don't really quite know how they use a product if they're telling you about it. That's perfectly normal. That's why it's a good idea to shadow a user; you'll get the benefit of context of use, and there is no risk of users omitting information in their answer in fear of looking dumb. Observe the user in their normal work environment, or whatever physical context is appropriate for the product. Observing users as they perform activities and questioning them in their own environment can bring the all-important details of their behaviors to light. You won't have to interpret actions later. So, rather than coming to interviews with a set questionnaire, you can directly ask questions and capture all the relevant data. The user will tell you (directly or indirectly) what you need to know. Look up contextual inquiry for more information.

Once you've finished up your initial research, you should have a set of behavior patterns. These patterns suggest goals and motivations (specific and general desired outcomes of using the product). For consumer products, they tend to correspond to lifestyle choices. Behavior patterns and the goals associated with them drive the creation of personas.


Design requires a target — the audience who is most serviced by your design. Typically, the more specific the target, the better. This is called a persona; it's a made up person who encompasses the behaviour, motivation and goals of your actual user. Sometimes (when your product is not very complex), one persona will suffice. Usually you'll need more than one. Prioritize your personas to determine which should be the primary design target. The goal is to find a single persona from the set whose needs and goals can be completely and happily satisfied by a single interface without disenfranchising any of the other personas.

You'll use these persona's to talk with stakeholders about your design. So if someone asks you "what can you tell me about who's going to be using this application?", you'll reference to your persona.

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