In the long journey of ideating, validating and creating a product, it’s always a good idea to put yourself into the user’s shoes; but not so much the other way around.

Entrepreneurs, Product Engineers and Product Managers all make the mistake of assuming that users are just “people like us”. Many of us fall prey to this mode of thinking because it is a human tendency to believe that our thoughts, ideas, feelings or way of doing things must be the normal way of doing things.

However, in many cases, your user is very different from you. She thinks very differently, has different beliefs and wants different things from life.

But, as a product manager, you need to represent your user. How do you do that?

Be watchful of bias

The best of us succumb to biases. After all, we’re so used to being, well, us, that often we take decisions unconsciously, based on our past experiences and our beliefs. This bias slips in when we are thinking of our user as well, and we often try rationalizing this by stating we know the users well.

This bias is more pronounced if we see majority of our users are the same age/sex/location/nationality/social strata as us. We quickly believe users are “just like us”.

But, ‘ASL’ as the demographics are often called, isn’t everything.

Users may share our ASL and yet be significantly different in other ways. We may be missing less obvious factors that impact usage and purchase such as class, or education, or their comfort level with technology. For instance, the very fact that you are a professionally qualified engineer may make you different from your users who aren’t – what appears to be a very easy to use, intuitive product may be incomprehensible to them.

A great read on unconscious biases we have is Rolf Dobeli’s The art of thinking clearly. Knowing your biases can help recognize when you’re slipping into them.

Become a user advocate

Why do we hire advocates to fight legal cases for us? It is because they can represent us better than we could ourselves.

Building a product is not a legal battle (ok, let’s clarify: that’s if we leave aside IP, licensing and other issues) but the principle is the same. As a product manager, you are chosen to be a user advocate within your team.

How do you fight her case? Firstly, by understanding as much as possible about her, her life, motivations, struggles, ways of thinking, feelings and more. Then, by collating all that you know into specific arguments about problems you can solve. And finally, by communicating this to your team and winning their approval on how to move forward.

Good product firms often send researchers/product managers to spend days with the intended user to understand their context better, and how they will use products.

While there is a tendency to observe a couple of users and call it quits, good product managers watch their users constantly to learn more about them.

Uncomplicate things

As this interesting story of how Google inbox was born mentions, most Gmail users receive only 5 emails a day. Few of them needed the extensive features meant for people who received a hundred critical emails each day. In fact, for users whose context is simple, complex features only lead to confusion and difficulty in using the product.

Once you understand users well, a key skill is in simplifying solutions you are building and the message you want to give out.

One of our favorite quotes around this is from the book Zorba the Greek, where Zorba cries out, “Boss, everything’s simple in the world. How many times must I tell you? So don’t go and complicate things!”


An earlier version of the article appeared here.