7 min read

What is a User?

What is a User?
what our world could feel like

You're probably confused by the title of this post.

Normally we would ask the question "Who is the user?" but not today.

So what is a user?

mid journey thinks a user is this

We need to remember that the word "user" is a modern convenience.

A shortcut to describing something. Or maybe someone.

It's a catch-all. An abstraction.

It's also misunderstood.

Unbundling Users

Wikipedia doesn't help either, this is their definition:

A user is a person who utilizes a computer or network service.

How does this help? It's rubbish.

It hides the complexity of what a user ACTUALLY is.

start with 1 black box -> end up with 2 others

Now, this isn't a philosophical post, but we have to ask ourselves the question:

What is a person?

Let's see what Wikipedia says about that:

A person ( people or persons) is a being that has certain capacities or attributes such as reason, morality, consciousness or self-consciousness, and being a part of a culturally established form of social relations such as kinship, ownership of property, or legal responsibility.[1][2][3][4]

But that doesn't really help either.

We could then ask, what is a being? What capabilities do they have? What are they using?

When would we stop asking questions? Never. On we go – forever.

We Can't Know What A User Actually Is

In an absolute sense, we can't know what a user actually is. It will FOREVER remain a label, an abstraction.

You can't measure userness. Users don't exist in the wild. Humans do, but users don't.

Users are manufactured.

We build users. We sculpt them. It starts when they're very young.

We put them through indoctrination camps aka school.

We then drill nonsense into their minds. We say things like "Just try your best to fit in." or "Just try your best" and if you don't – you're seen as a social outcast. We treat our youth like a commodity.

We process the wild minds of our young into neat, manageable, and easily manipulatable servants.

Afterwards, we program problems into their lives. Through the use of propaganda (mass marketing) to drive demand towards purchasing a product they don't need. We install psychological holes in their psyche that never get filled but keep them coming back for more. Like addicts.

They never realize that the problems they experience aren't real. They're programmed so that they continue to purchase, consume, and indulge. What a shame.

And on they go. Running on the hedonic treadmill of modern life.

prompt: a sad office worker sitting on the subway going to work in the morning with a coffee in his hand (i don't see any coffee mid-journey)

So what is this user research thing all about?

At a superficial level: it's answering 3 things.

  1. What are people's manufactured needs?
  2. What are people's manufactured wants?
  3. How do people use the things we manufacture for them?

At a deeper level:

We research to generate a more sophisticated understanding of how people think about a product, industry, or topic. We focus on understanding problem spaces and exploring/evaluating potential solutions.

It's boring.

But given the nature of the system we exist within, this is what we have to work with. It's what puts food on the table.

I hope we can understand that it's not ideal but this is what we have to work with. This is the best our industry has come up with.

The problem with industrialized empathy...

We've managed to hijack empathy and fashion it into a weapon to use in the marketplace. To better target those people with manufactured problems, we collect data on their lives, in hopes of developing something that they would be happy (or anxious) to pay for.

Alongside all the other things they're already buying – we really want them to buy OUR thing next.

a plane getting hijacked with the word empathy written on the side of the plane

I know it sounds bleak.

Don't worry – we're going to talk about a better way.

A better version...

Now, I don't have the answers that'll change the world. But maybe I have something that can change your mind – which is the first step to changing everything.

Here is a more useful model...

Will Myddelton wrote a fantastic blog post about the objective of user research and understanding user needs. He provides a starting point for us to start fashioning a more holistic/healthier view of users.

Let's start with an image:

I drew this

8 Dimensions of a User

I won't go into too much depth here but just look at all the things we can research.

Goals - What are people trying to do?

I want this desired state.

Tasks - What are they actually doing?

all the things I gotta do.

Contexts - Where are they?

Behaviours - How are they acting?


Emotions - How do they feel?

we feel things

Beliefs - What are their mental models?

Problems - Where are their pain points?

the gaping hole isn't because of the outside world. It's because you haven't paid attention to the inside world.

Capabilities - What capacities do they have?

what do they believe about themselves? can they do things?

But... Is that it? No!

There is one more dimension to add: Wholeness.

users are inherently whole.

This dimension is the one that sits under all OTHERS. But we often times forget it as we ourselves don't feel whole.

When we assume that a "user" has problems – we perpetuate that. We make design decisions that keep them and us in one spot. One way of being.

Instead, we can change the frame. From one of separation to one of wholeness. And it all starts with you.

Change your mind and you change the world.  

Users are inherently whole. It's a fact. They have simply overlooked that fact. The barrage of information telling them otherwise can sometimes be very convincing.

Wholeness informs everything else

We, as researchers/builders/entrepreneurs, are in the best position to help them realize this. We can still build things, we can still market things, we can still SELL things but the shift is this:

We're now working to reinforce our user's wholeness.

This is scary news for the people that rely on this system to disproportionately capture wealth relative to the actual value they provide to humanity as a whole. What would the world look like if people remembered their wholeness? Would we buy the same things? Would we consume the same things? How would we spend our time?

If we can simply realize the value of remembering wholeness, we would be able to erase decades of abuse and extraction. People would buy things in the exact quantity they needed, no more or less. Our world would look very different.

And just like that – we change the world. We change your world. We change their world. That is all that matters.

Practical Steps

I get it. Even though you ARE whole, you may not know how to knowingly be that.

Here are some pointers & reminders:

  1. There is no separation – our body/mind is just different frequencies of the same energy
  2. You are never alone – our beings are shared
  3. There are no problems, only perceived problems
  4. That who is reading this is the exact same as that who wrote this
  5. Thinking is suffering – realize you're thinking and return to the present moment
  6. Your point of power is in the present
  7. The world appears in you
  8. The ego is a compound thought – it isn't real
  9. Learn to detangle your awareness from that which you're aware of
  10. Spend time in nature – she teaches
  11. Spend time in solitude – be with yourself
  12. Avoid unhealthy technology
  13. Avoid negative people
  14. Be a friend to your emotions
  15. Let go of wanting to change
  16. Be here, now

So with that – I think we can put this "user" nonsense to bed. There are no users, instead, there is simply wholeness. We can either be in service of that wholeness or continue to be stuck in delusion.

with love,

in an absolute sense, yes.