February 20, 2014 by Natalie

Who Are You, The User?

Welcome to Natalie’s Thoughts About Stuff. This blog post is my written thoughts on a topic I often mull over but that I don’t have an answer to. I’d love to hear what you think.

I spend a lot of time thinking about The User. How will The User respond to a design? How will The User interface with an application? I even think about The User in terms of parking garages, corporate office parks, malls, freeways, the layout of my house, the soda machine at Noodles & Company, the way my breakfast burrito is wrapped.

I think “this is not User friendly.” Or “this was definitely designed with The User in mind.”

And sometimes it dawns on me that there is no such thing as The User as a predetermined form that we are striving to make everything compatible for. The User is created, it’s re-created, disassembled, re-assembled, manipulated, advocated for, educated, re-educated, and invented.

I am not The User. You are not The User. We become The User through the process above, by responding to our environment.

Let’s think about it like this: the world does not consider The User. We’re born, we live, and we die in a world that functions with or without us. And we’re only able to make it through our lives because we adapt to and manipulate our environments.

To say that something is designed with The User in mind–whether it’s software, a website, or the layout of the building–is only to say that it is designed for The User Of Now. The User of Yesterday is dead and the User of Tomorrow is being created by innovators as we speak.

Is the iPhone User Friendly, or did Apple train The User to believe so? Humans are incredibly adaptable. We’ve managed to survive and thrive in the tropics and in the arctic. Are the tropics User Friendly? Is the arctic? Those are stupid questions. It doesn’t matter. We adapt. We make them User Friendly because we know how to use. We have to use to survive.

I’m not advocating for giving up on UX/UI. Not at all. I think it’s one of the most fascinating and rewarding aspects of, well, everything. But if we act on the belief that we’re trying to get closer to what The User wants, that we’re trying to achieve the pinnacle of usability, as though there really ever is such a thing, then we might be relinquishing opportunities for innovation.

I’m not talking about user testing. User testing will show you what someone is capable of understanding today, not what you can slowly train them to understand and expect.

How can we let The User experience something unexpected without frustrating him or her to the point of abandonment? How can we trust that human beings are always adapting and willing to look at their experiences differently but create in a way that allows them to do so naturally? Is it a slow progress or can it be done suddenly?

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