• John Bowie

The Design Mind #3: Whom Do You Serve?

In my last post, The Design Mind #2: The First Question, my thought experiment began with this question:

How might we design a better way for a person to get the outcomes and results that they care about?

In my view, this simple question captures the essence of all design problems. In this post and those to follow, I’ll see where this leads. My goal is to deconstruct this question into a cascade of prerequisite questions and try to answer them one by one until we reach a final answer (and a “way” design).

Before we can design a better way to achieve outcomes and results, we need to know who the people are that care about those outcomes and results. And so, the next question in the cascade that must be answered is…

Whom do you serve?

There’s an old axiom in the UX community that a product or service designed for everybody ends up pleasing nobody. As you begin your project, you must have an idea about whom you want to serve. Is it Shareholders (in all but rare cases, I hope not)? Accountants? Music lovers? Golfers? Families? Amateur photographers? Artists? Commuters? Writers? Collaborators? Chefs? Servers? Receptionists? Schedulers? Dentists? Gamers? Movie Lovers? Audiophiles?

Users…???

No, not users. Never users. You are designing a way for your chosen subset of humanity to get results without forcing them to become users.

I once thought that we, as experience design teams, should stop using the “u word” – i.e., stop using the word “users” to describe the people who employ our products and services. I was wrong. Except in rare circumstances, we must use the word “user.” Why? Because our products and services have not yet achieved sufficient design maturity to earn the right to stop using the term.

Let me explain with an example.

I’m pursuing this thought experiment in PowerPoint because I need to combine text and images as I try to reason things out. After I created a few slides, PowerPoint volunteered several slide design concepts for me to consider in the Design Ideas panel on the right side of the window:

I have to admit, many of these suggestions were much cooler than anything I could come up with. So, I chose to adopt one of the styles and was pretty happy about it.

To be clear, up to this point I was not a PowerPoint user. I was an idea explorer, a writer, and an illustrator. I was nerding out, consumed by cognitive reverie. This continued uninterrupted until I tried to create my first indented sub-bullet.

Like I’ve always done, I positioned my cursor before the first character in the bullet text and pressed the TAB key, expecting PowerPoint to indent the bullet as it always had in the past. No luck. Sub-bullets in this PowerPoint design style that I adopted are not indented; they are italicized with a slight font change. I don’t like this. It does not provide sufficient emphasis for the visual relationship that I’m trying to convey.

What just happened? When I tried to indent my first sub-bullet and failed to achieve my desired result, PowerPoint forced me to abandon my identity as a thought experimenter. Instead, at that moment, I became a PowerPoint user.

My long, time-consuming, irritating user experience journey began:

Long story short: After several attempts and help system searches, I still have not been able to impose my will on PowerPoint. Even when I click a button that is labeled “Indent More,” PowerPoint refuses to obey that command. Alas, I’m no longer a writer, an idea pursuer; I’m just a generic, frustrated user, held hostage by the secret inner architecture of PowerPoint.

Users are forced to focus on the mechanics of using a product or service rather than on what they are trying to accomplish with the product or service. A perfect product or service would have no users, only writers, illustrators, accountants, teachers, receptionists…etc., who are making continuous, uninterrupted progress toward achieving the outcomes and results they care about.

No one buys a product with the goal of becoming a power user – they just want to get stuff done. The less they are aware that they are using the product or service the better. Product teams must awaken to the fact that in most cases their product is ancillary–not integral–to their customers’ lives.

So back to our question: Whom do you serve?


When starting a design project, you should replace the term “user” with a more precise description that is product agnostic, such as a teacher, audiophile, cook, blogger, social activist, movie fan, etc. Even better, if you’ve created personas, replace the term “user” with the names of your personas, such as Javier, Jamal, Akatsuki, LaKeisha, and Srividya. During design meetings, this common understanding of your personas’ true identities and desired results will help you make good decisions as you design the “way” to achieve them.


And constantly ask the question: has this experience we’ve just designed forced Srividia to become our user, or does it empower her to stay focused on the outcomes and results that are meaningful to her?


Based on my PowerPoint experience, Microsoft’s design question could be:


How might we design a better way for John to control bulleted list formatting without distracting him from the content of his presentation? (Hint: make the TAB key work as expected!)

In the future, I’m sure I will be able to “talk” to PowerPoint just as I do Alexa. I’ll be able to say, “Hey PowerPoint, indent all my sub-bullets.”

Unfortunately, for the moment, PowerPoint isn’t listening.

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