My product management toolkit (8): learning who my users are

It’s great if you can find out what your user needs are but you’d also need to know who your users are in the first place. There’s risk of us product managers assuming that we know who our users are or how they behave. WRONG. I’ve learned over the years how important it is to know and understand your target audience before you start solving their problems.

Tool 8 – User research, learning who my users are

These are the main things I typically want to learn about my users:

  • Who are they? – Understand the demographics and characteristics of my target users
  • What do they do? – Learn how my target users behave and why

Why is it important to know who your users are? – I always wonder how you can say that you’ve solved a user problem successfully if you don’t know who you’ve solved the problem for. Identifying who your users are or aren’t will help you in three areas. Firstly, comms will improve as a result of shared understanding of user characteristics and behaviours. Secondly, measuring whether you’ve solved a particular problem will become much easier. Thirdly, a thorough understanding of your users will provide a good framework for tough prioritisation or tradeoff decisions.

Why is it important to know what your users do? – As a product person, I believe that fully understanding a problem that you’re trying to solve is absolutely critical. In order to understand what you’re trying to solve and why, it’s important to learn how people currently solve a particular problem. For example, through observation and watching your (target) customers in action there’s so much you can learn about user problems or frustrations.

Learning what your users do is by no means a one off exercise. Before you start designing a feature or write a single line code, understand whether the problem you’re looking to solve is an actual problem for your user. Similarly, once you’ve launched a feature or a service, do go back to your users and see whether it has indeed helped to solve their problem.

What are some of the things to learn about your (target) users? – These are the key things I’ll typically try and learn about my users:

  • What are the key characteristics of my target users? – Think about objective characteristics such as gender, location and age. I believe it’s equally important to understand how users can be best segmented based on shares characteristics or behaviours.
  • Which market segment(s) does my target audience form part of? – Is it an existing segment we operate in already or an adjacent segment where we need to look at reapplying our product or service?
  • How knowledgeable are users about our product or service, and competition? – I always find it helpful to have more context about users in a sense of my understanding e.g. whether users or heavy users of my product, use competitive products, etc. For example, can your users be grouped as “extreme users” – i.e. people who use your product or service a lot – or “limiting users” – people with limited knowledge of your product or service?
  • When do they use – or are likely to use – my product and why? – Understanding the context in which people use your product or service is crucial. For example, do people use the product when they are on the go or when they are relaxing at home?

How can you learn who your users are? – Interviewing and observing are two good ways to understand who your users are and what they do. I’ve outlined some common observation methods in Fig. 1 below. My classic example is Intuit, a big financial software business, who have a dedicated “Follow Me Home” programme whereby everybody in the business visits customers in their natural environment, watching how they use their products. Bang & Olufsen, the high end TV manufacturer, is another good example, as their employees will sit with families when they watch TV in their homes.

If it’s pure user demographics you’re after, your database or CRM system are likely to be your best friends. For example, a simple SQL query will help you to find out about the average age of your customer base.

Main learning point: Don’t just assume who your users are, make sure to understand their demographics and behaviours!

Fig. 1 – Common observation methods:

  • Field observation
  • Field study
  • Contextual inquiry
  • Guided tour
  • Fly-on-the-wall
  • Shadowing
  • Ethnography

Related links for further learning:


4 responses to “My product management toolkit (8): learning who my users are”

  1. Awesome tips here! Have you found that field studies would alter the user behavior? As in do the user’s behavior change when they know someone is in the room studying them?

    • Hi,

      Yes, observation or field studies can have an impact on users and sometimes it makes sense to not reveal straight away that you’re observing people. This, however, largely depends on your users and the things you’re looking to learn. I’ve seen a good number of cases where user behaviour wasn’t impacted as a result of my presence.

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