UX Creator Tip: Fear the surrogate user.

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Ever sat on a project and heard someone give their account as to why the user base won’t like xyz feature or UI change? Ever sat in a cubicle and listen to someone rail against the idea of change for fear it would upset the user base to the point where the helpdesk would be flooded with “Please Explain” calls.

Surrogate User – people used as a substitute or representative for users, in order to provide information in design meetings, user testing, and so forth.

The reality is this, end users are surprising beasts and often will surprise you in what they can and can’t do. The end user especially in enterprise is so used to crap-tac-ula software day in day out that anything really that you do as of today onwards is highly likely to be much simpler to what they are used to (especially given the consumerism within Enterprise these days). Furthermore should they dislike the software they aren’t likely to all abandon their jobs simply because of a bad UX decision – as 9/10 they are under duress around crappy software decisions made by other teams anyway.

Instead, the end user is probably thirsty as ever for software that feels simpler to use and actually looks like someone took the time to think about them and their needs instead of how it solves one finite problem only. Software’s job is to react to the end user, not make the user react to it! 🙂

End users are also making use of a variety of software so whilst one particular UI pattern that has been adopted is “the way they are used to today” doesn’t necessarily mean they are ignorant of all other UI patterns out there on the market.

The key is to leverage existing muscle memory as much as you can today and less showing off on what you can and can’t do with some of the UX Platforms at your disposal. Be creative but don’t be overly creative, you get no points for showing off.

Layer-in complexity is what I always tell people, as it’s much harder to reduce complexity later than it is to bring it in slowly. It’s also the best discussions to have, as if the business or end users are complaining that the software is too simple – which let’s be clear, I dream of these discussions – then you have more of a baseline to draw from going forward around feature weighting and selection (which plays into UX + Agile in a way).

The surrogate user is someone you should fear in all software projects as they often bring pre-existing bad habits forward and lastly suffer from the “I’m in touch with my audience” arrogance (sometimes without realizing. I’m told that a Surrogate User when done right works, i’m yet to see one of these unicorn beasts, but i’m told just the same.

Whenever I hear someone say “Users don’t like..” my first instinct is to respond “Oh? Did 1 in 5 housewives tell you that or is this something you’re just making assumptions on?” – Meaning is this “I think” or is it “I know”.

Surrogate Users are dangerous unless they are moderated by someone who has the “UX” somewhere buried in their resume, as they can often decode the “personal bias” from the science of what these entities represent.

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  • Thanks. I actually ran into this several times in the past. The surrogate user is usually also a representation of the lest intelligent human on Earth. They can’t do basic, single digit arithmetic, they have to wear velcro shoes as they lack the capacity to learn how to tie their shoes.

    Basing important UX decisions on the lowest common denominator isn’t always the best approach. And assuming how intelligent your average user is isn’t a practice I’ve ever thought to create easy-to-use interfaces.