Is this a power user?

The Myth of the ‘Power User’

I tweeted about this a while back and it seemed like a worthy topic to spend some time writing a bit more.

If you design software long enough, you’ll hear mention of a particular type of user called a ‘power user’. The bad part is that the statements involving them almost never include accompanying data, just assumptions about how these types of users prefer to do things. It’s statements such as…

Yeah, that’s not a good idea because power users won’t use that…

Or…

We have to keep in mind what power users would do…

Usually, you’ll hear grunts of agreement afterwards…☺

This is all fine and good as long as you have done due dilligence to define exactly what a power user is and what their motivations are, and all that good UX stuff. But I would assert that until you have a persona fleshed out, power users don’t exist, except in fleeting internal company meetings, which usually have nothing to do with real people! ;)

What a ‘Power User’ is… Or isn’t?

Most of the time, a power user is actually someone internal to your company, like someone on QA who has tested the product extensively. But you’re usually not building products for your internal teams, and those kinds of users may no longer remember what the product is like for new users. So we can really just eliminate them entirely.

Second to that, power users could be considered long-time users of a particular product, but there are many reasons why duration alone is a poor measure. A good example is Photoshop. Adobe Photoshop, as you’re probably well aware, is an extremely deep and incredibly complex application that allows for many different types of uses, and I doubt there is any single one individual who has mastered absolutely everything that Photshop has to offer. Personally, I have used Photoshop seriously since version 4 or 5 (pre-CS) and I still don’t know all the nooks and crannies, nor do I need to. So let’s also eliminate long-time users as well.

Lastly, we could use my friend Jonathan’s definition to describe power users…

But as I responded to him, isn’t that just overcoming a bad design? Don’t get me wrong. These are definitely the types of customers you want because they will stick with you (seemingly) despite all your flaws and imperfections. But succeeding in the face of some flawed UI shouldn’t bestow titles like ‘power user’ upon anyone. So I think we can eliminate them as well.

So where does that leave us?

The good news is…

…you don’t need to worry about it! The best way to resolve this issue is to focus on the known use cases. Who are the people you’re making your product for and why do they need what you’re making? Get specific too. Don’t just settle on “anyone who wants to buy our products!” as your customers. That’s a giant cop out.

By focusing on the specific people you want to reach, you can be much more confident that you’re actually solving a real problem, and not just dancing around some made up scenario like ‘power users’. That doesn’t help anyone.

In the end, ‘power users’ are a myth. They’re a made up use case that deserves none of your team’s time and energy unless you can actually get specific about who they are, what they do, and most importantly, why. When you do that, you will most likely find that these types of users fit into existing personas (assuming you have them), which just goes to further demonstrate how these types of users really don’t exist.

Almost assuredly, you will still hear the words come up in discussion, so don’t worry. The concept isn’t going anywhere. But instead of changing important decisions about your product based on a mythical user, stay focused on the goal of providing real people something of value first, and sort out the ‘power user’ question later, once you’ve had time to solve real problems! ☺