product management

5 User Pitfalls to Avoid


Guest Post by: David Parmelee, Digital Strategy Consultant

As Marc Wendell described in a Product Mentor video, the foundation of success in both product management and user experience (UX) is solving a problem for a specific user. 

Products fall short when they include and/or over-prioritize extraneous features that don’t solve that user’s problem.  An e-commerce website could give first-time visitors a popup asking for a subscription to an email list.  A blog could aggressively demand shares on social media before people have even had a chance to read through an article.  A software product could overemphasize a feature that its own team just wanted to build.

According to Jeff Gothelf, Lean Startup emphasizes making assumptions about your target market, testing them with rapid prototypes, and iterating based on customer feedback.  Lean UX emphasizes getting out of the building to find out what those assumptions should be.

However, the pressure to jump from customer research straight into a solution can lead you down the wrong path.

5 pitfalls and how to fix them

Assuming that all of your users are the same

ku-xlarge[1]According to Alan Cooper in The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, “the user” is a problematic phrase.  It lacks an absolute definition.  Instead, its meaning changes based on who is talking about users, when, and in which contexts.

Qualitative user research techniques, such as user interviews and user surveys, capture users’ behavior and vocabulary.  That unearths sets of real-life goals and pain points.  With a sufficiently large data set of your own users, you will find that their behaviors, goals, and pain points will be quite different from each other’s – let alone your own.  You won’t be able to distill “the user” down into one single person.

Neglecting users’ lives away from their devices

In an episode of Hack the Entrepreneur, Chris Lema described how entrepreneurs have been pitching ideas for online appointment booking systems since 1995.  But the reason why they failed to gain traction was that their end users in doctors’ offices didn’t want to leave a paper-based system that they saw as safe.

User research can show you whether solving a problem using technology is worth pursuing.  For example, an iPad app for use in a hazardous environment is a tough sell – especially if its users are not already using iPads in that environment.

Asking the wrong users for input

Teams working on products for consumers can recruit survey participants or interviewees online by running ads on their social media channels or ordering results from a survey panel.


However, how close will that sample be to the product’s real user base?  People who donate their time to take a survey might have a very strong opinion – one way or another – about the product or brand.  Survey panelists often expect payment and might become “professional survey takers”, who treat surveys as a secondary or primary income stream.  Because of this, they may lie on screening questions to take surveys for products they have no intention of buying.

Products for businesses fall prey to this, too.  Politics can influence you to hear from only your organization’s favorite current or potential customers.  This is even more true for internal products.  Internal stakeholders can say that they have enough participants just because everybody on their own team participated in the research.

Three tactics help your team navigate these situations.  First, collect a large pool of potential participants for interviews or surveys via a screening form or a shorter initial survey.  That helps you make sure that potential respondents have used a product like yours and that they meet any other criteria for definitely being in your target market.  Give them a token incentive for participating so that they will be less inclined to lie on the screener.

Second, target your requests for input to people outside your own product team.  If this is unsuccessful, you may need to use provisional personas to represent the real users, based on what these user proxies have said about them.

Third, you can feed poor-fit participants into what About Face calls “negative personas”, which represent people who are clearly not targets for your design.  For example, if survey participants for a tourism app say that they hardly ever travel, and their goals are very different from the goals of the people who travel frequently, use a persona for these “virtual tourists” to communicate that you are designing for actual tourists.

Grouping users artificially

Efforts to generate effective personas can be doomed from the start if they operate under artificial constraints.  

Types of People[1]For example, a potential client came to me saying that their existing persona set was too large.  They wanted me to reduce it to a strict limit of three personas.  But they sell an enterprise product to a very wide range of organizations, so three personas could not account for their real users’ differences in behavior.  Based on that and project timelines, we chose to not work together.

Several tricks help with simplifying a persona set.  You can use their goals, tasks, market share, and expected business value (using a process in Designing for the Digital Age) to determine primary and secondary targets for the design of your whole product or one area of your product.  You may also find that designing for one primary persona and accounting for the needs of a secondary persona will meet another persona’s needs so well that you don’t need to consider that persona in design.

Another artificial constraint comes from segmentation by demographics.  Assumptions that you “need” a persona for a particular generation, occupation, or ethnicity are often flawed.  It can lead to a design that assumes that everyone in that demographic profile will always act the same.  Behavior and goals are much more effective ways to segment personas, since they translate more effectively to UX and UI design.

Disregarding user research findings in design

Traditional UX work can yield complex deliverables, like 40-page usability reports or persona spreadsheets with intricate details.  It is difficult for UX practitioners, let alone the rest of a team, to keep these deliverables’ findings in their heads as they make design decisions.  

So arbitrarily cutting a feature that is critical for meeting a user’s goal is tempting – particularly under the pressure of a ship date.  It is no wonder, then, that Lean UX emphasizes “leaving the deliverables business”.  

Still, lighter-weight user research deliverables can help solve this problem.  Empathy maps provide a one-page cheat sheet which recaps personas.  Triaged results from a teardown or usability study – ranked by User Pain – can help a team work on the most important things next.

Or you could focus on higher-value deliverables, based on your user research.  Teardowns or usability studies can show you how effectively people in your target market can use products like yours.  Perform them on your existing product, a prototype, or a competitor’s product.

Learn more about user research and designing from data
1496179093590[1]This article is adapted from content in UX for Development Shops: Declutter Your Interface, Design from Data, & Increase User Adoption & Retention.  You may buy this ebook at


About David Parmelee
David-058.jpgDavid Parmelee is the owner of Thrill & Create, a user experience consultancy in Maryland.  Also bringing deep experience in software development for companies ranging from the Fortune 500 to small businesses, he now helps development teams increase user retention in their products.  His client list for UX projects includes large global companies, county governments, and organizations in hospitality and tourism.  His ebook, UX for Development Shops: Declutter Your Interface, Design from Data, & Increase User Adoption & Retention, helps development agencies, teams, and individual developers to achieve better business results by focusing on and involving their target users.  David publishes a video series, More Than an Interface (>UI), and created Teardowns with a Twist, an innovative way to evaluate digital products from multiple personas’ perspectives at once.  Learn more about David at, on LinkedIn, or on Twitter at @DavidParmeleeUX.

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