Definition of “user”

Mariana Morris

At OCC user research (usability testing, user interviews and feedback activities with users) is central to our design process. However, these activities only add value if we test with real users. Doing user research with the wrong people can be misleading and sometimes worse than not doing any user research.

So it’s important that we are on the same page when we refer to a “user” to get the most value out of our user research and test the product with the right people.

“Your stakeholders and colleagues are not real users. They are not representative of your target audience.” Hoa Loranger, UX without user research, Nielsen and Norman Group


A user is a person for whom an application has been designed and developed for. A person who actually uses a particular product. A user has no direct or indirect financial interest in the outcome of the product development and no direct influence. They have nothing to lose if the product/business fails. In most cases, they will use the product if/when the product adds value to them. If it doesn't work for them, they may choose another product or system.

Real representatives of users have needs and goals using the product.

Users are not:

  • The client
    Even if clients will also use the product, they are not real representatives of users. They have business interest in the product and are too close to the project to be able to give objective and unbiased feedback. So if they are a stakeholder and a user, they are primarily a stakeholder. Because we need to ensure that the interface is intuitive for people who are new to the system (future proof - the interface must not only be understood by specific users), user research should be done with users that are not the stakeholders.
  • A manager who buys the product for their staff to use. Their staff, in this case, are the users.
  • Someone who works at OCC
    We are not real representative users because we are highly technical, spend most of our days on the computer, and are too close to the development of the app. We have an interest that the development of the product benefits OCC. We may be stakeholders or part of the development team.
  • Anyone “because my product is for anyone to use”
    Every product has target users and that’s why we identify the user groups at the beginning of the design project. It’s a mistake to think that the product could be tested with anyone. When we test our product with users, we want to test with targeted demographics and realistic user scenarios.
  • Our friends and family
    We don’t get much value in running user research with our friends and family because they like us and like to please us. Their feedback is not going to be unbiased.
  • An imaginary friend
    Anyone playing the role of a user is not the user. We won’t get real value from testing with imaginary users.

*An older variation of the terms for “user” would be “end-users”. Since we don’t do “end-user experience design”, “end-user interviews” but “user experience design”, “user interviews”, we should be clearer and refer to the people we need to do research with as “users”. Anyone else should be called stakeholders or development team.


People have direct interest in the outcome of the product development and will be affected by the success or failure of it. They have a strong say in the direction of the product. They have an investment (financial or resource) in the product’s success.  They are paying for the development of the product.

Getting feedback from stakeholders are also very important and the activities are called “stakeholder interviews”, “stakeholder workshop”, etc.