When the User is not the Customer

Sometimes the people who buy the things you design are not the same people who will use them.

Consider infant nutrition. For many other lines of business in the food industry, the terms consumer and customer are interchangeable. But not with baby foods. In this space, the person who consumes the product (the baby) is not the same person who buys it (the baby’s caregiver, most usually his or her mother.) The two groups have different needs and expectations: the nutritional aspects of the product must address the infant, while its packaging and marketing must address the caregiver. A successful product must address both.

Another example is corporate IT. The computers and other tech equipment used in large organizations are not sold to the people who use them; instead, they’re sold to IT departments. The needs and incentives of the people who make these purchasing decisions are different from those of the people who’ll use the equipment. While the latter care about good product experiences, the former are more concerned with reliability, serviceability, manageability, and cost.

These different sets of needs may conflict with one another. In some cases, such as with newborn infants, the conflict is unacknowledged because users may be unaware or unable to articulate their needs properly. But in many other cases, end users may be quite aware of what they like or don’t like in a product. For example, making a laptop more serviceable may also make it heavier and clunkier. This is often a challenge in enterprise contexts where people often make decisions on behalf of their collaborators.

When designing a product or system, it’s important to be clear on who its users are, who its customers are, and whether or not the two groups are the same. When they’re not, we must set out to map the needs and concerns of both groups so we are clear on what tradeoffs — if any — are required. As much as designers aspire to be user-centered, we must acknowledge that being customer-centered is also important. While this is easier to do when our users are also our customers, this is not always the case.