So, I guess we all know that users are people, however, even if this seems pretty banal to you, we sometimes tend to forget and just refer to them as ‘users’. Who are the users? What do users want, or even what do users need? Well, users are people and people are pretty complex. In order to know what the ‘users’ want and who they are, we first all of need to see them as people. Complex human beings with each of their needs, motivations and challenges.

I am an Ethnologist and in my work as a User Researcher at Methods I work with people on a day to day basis. I’ve worked with different public sector clients and organisations and have seen a variety of ways in approaching user research and its findings. In my opinion, they all share a common difficulty in underestimating the value of truly understanding who their users are and more importantly how they make sense of the world. One of the difficulties is that user research as a practice often is closely related to design and user experience and not centred around the sole purpose of understanding who people really are and what that matters to them. I think we should do something to change that. I think that we, as researchers, organisations or consultancies can do better.


When research is just about users

As I see it, the first misunderstanding is that user research is just about understanding users. But what is a ‘user’ even and what does it mean to be a user? User research has become a known practice and is for many a key element of working from a user-centred design approach and part of a design thinking mindset. But when you think about it, user research is in its essence much more than that; it doesn’t just inform design, it can help organisations drive change.

In more user experience focussed research, we tend to focus primarily on what people do; how they interact with a service and what buttons they click, taking for granted that their actual behaviour in a given (often artificial) situation or setup only shows part of how they perceive and experience a service, and it doesn’t reveal much about who they are as people.

We also have a tendency of depersonalising the people we try to understand and study by calling them ‘users’. The term ‘users’ refers to a connected group of people whom we perceive are (almost) exactly the same; they like the same things, react in similar ways, and are perceived as one homogenous group. However, that’s not the reality. As already argued, people are different, they are complex, they are individuals.

We, therefore, need to stop referring to people as users, but see them as real people, who in some situations can be seen as users or customers, and who are the ones we within the term of ‘user research’ are trying to understand. Instead of focussing on what buttons people click, we need to focus on what makes them click and if a button is even the right way of solving the problem. We need to take a step back to look at what people say, at what they do and at what they say and do in comparison. Let me show you how.

Focus on cultures rather than individuals

There is a need to increase our focus on cultures, rather than on individuals. But what is culture even? By culture I mean the shared perceptions of the world that has been created on a basis of past experiences and pre-built knowledge. Everything we do is embedded within our culture and it makes us who we are and determine why we do the things we do and what we hope to achieve from it.

Culture is also fluffy, difficult to grasp and at the same time it’s everywhere. You could be a playful dad in the morning, a strict CEO of a big company at work, someone who gets his coffee addiction fulfilled at McDonald’s while only going to his local organic supermarket to do groceries. People’s perceptions of different cultures and of what is meaningful is what makes us differ from one another. Our behaviour is often contradicting, meaningless to others and difficult to predict. But the complexity of people’s behaviour is what makes it so unique and inspiring to study.

Different aspects of our lives have an impact on how we behave in specific situations and with specific services. In order to truly understand and be able to (try) and predict how we as people experience and perceive the world we need to take these aspects and different behaviours into an account. If analysing people in relation to a specific design, service or situation, they are at risk of being passive actors within an already ‘existing artificial reality’. While, if you analyse and spend time with people in their natural environment, unrelated to a specific outcome or solution, they are more likely to act as they normally do, and you get a deep insight into who they really are. What I’m saying is, we need to set aside user experience and design to generate valuable insights that are worth betting on. To sum up, here are three key recommendations to help you increase your focus on people, not just users.


  1. Be explorative. Be explorative in your approach to the field, the people you meet and remember to keep an open mind. Try to avoid being too focussed on an intended outcome or a long list of already prepared questions. Let people tell you their story and listen to it, even though you may not immediately understand its importance.


  1. Engage with people in their natural environment. Keep an open mind and make sure to meet people from an objective perspective and engage with them on common ground. Meet them where they are, whether a specific setting, a mind-set or an emotional state of mind. The best way to understand people is by spending time with them in a setting where they feel comfortable.


  1. Take a holistic view. For example, what is it actually like to apply for a citizenship? We are not just listening to people and observing their behaviour, we are trying to make sense of them. Understand them. See things from their perspective in relation to their experiences, their perceptions and their motivations, not in relation to a specific service they occasionally are a user of, but in relation to who they are and how they live their life.


By taking an explorative approach, engaging with people in their natural environment and being holistic in your perception of people your focus on people as part of cultures, structures and contexts will increase. The simplistic focus on people merely as ‘users’ of a service will be secondary and hopefully you’ll see how much value you can add to design processes and more importantly, to the people you design for.