by Kate Welker

There’s an old joke along the lines of – “There are two types of people – those who think people can be categorized into types, and those who don’t.”

As an analytical and empathetic person, I belong to the first type. In fact, I really enjoy typing people. I’ve explored all kinds of typing systems – Myers-Briggs, Strengthsfinder, DISC, the Enneagram, even (just for fun!) astrology. An important aspect of all these typing systems is they are categorizing across some criteria – for example, Myers-Briggs focuses on 4 criteria to do with perceiving and thinking, the Enneagram focuses on what people’s primary motivational drivers are, etc. Because they focus on different aspects of personality, the different typing systems are useful for different purposes – Myers-Briggs is often used for career planning, while the Enneagram is used more in psychology.





Typing people is important in the product development process as well. To come up with great product ideas and to design products well, it’s critical to understand the different types of people who would use those products, and create experiences that will appeal to them. And while these types may be related to existing typing systems like Myers-Briggs and others, they must usually be freshly generated based on an understanding of people’s wants, needs and behaviors related to the use of those products.

We often use a general term “User Type” to refer to the different types of people who use products. But at various stages in the development process, more specific terms are used. Let’s look at how User Types can be employed throughout the product development process.

User Types help define offerings – Customer-Driven Innovation

Understanding user types is critical for defining new product offerings. I’ve been inspired by the work of authors like Clay Christensen, who talk about designing products to solve specific customer needs or “jobs” (a “job” being understood as something like a need someone “hires” a product to solve). At this early stage in the process, User Types are often called “target customers.”

Sometimes an offering will be aimed at just one target customer, and sometimes it will be aimed at multiple ones. (Unfortunately, sometimes the target customer for an offering isn’t well defined at all – and then its ability to meet customer needs is very hit or miss.)

Here’s an example from a project I once worked on. When it comes to financial education, people want different things depending on their type. Some people don’t want it at all. Those who do want it have different needs, primarily driven by their planning orientation and how satisfied they are with their current situation. Planners are likely to want to learn to help them plan and get ahead. Those who live by the moment or don’t plan at all tend to want just enough financial education to help them get out of difficult situations, and often want it to be action based.

User Types

For an offering to be successful, each type of customer must be well understood. Too often, a product will be designed for one target customer with the vague idea that it will appeal to others as well. The problem is then the product development team doesn’t focus on those other customers to understand their needs and whether they will also be met. And if the target customers are dramatically different from one another – like the Improvers and Starters in the chart above – they may need entirely different solutions.

User Types help design products – Personas

Most people in the design field are familiar with using Personas as a foundation for design. Personas take the notion of User Types a step farther – fleshing out the basic types of target customers with details that bring them to life for designers. They are used for inspiration in the design process, and also to facilitate a user-centered focus for others on the product development team. Personas are most useful when connected with different workflows that need to be supported in the design.

For example, suppose you have a User Type you call “Targeted Achiever” – someone who is planning for a near-term goal, somewhat satisfied with their current situation but wanting to learn more to help achieve this goal. You might develop a Persona of “Harry the Wannabe Homeowner,” and build a story around Harry’s life situation, what actions Harry needs to take to be able to buy a house, etc. Workflows might include getting enough information to make a checklist, checking items off as they’re finished, and maybe learning about something else along the way.

While Personas are extremely valuable, it’s important not to lose sight of the fundamental User Type behind each one. In some projects, I’ve skipped developing fleshed out Personas and just stuck with the core User Types and their workflows.

One other point about User Types at this phase of the process – sometimes, you will want these to include characteristics other than those of your Target Customer. In the case of financial education, for example, people’s preferences and styles for interacting with information may play a role over and above the goals that would lead them to use a product. User Types may be refined to include these aspects as well.

User Types keep the team focused on the user, not themselves!

Often, members of the product development team think of their own needs while evaluating the definition and design of the solution. While this sort of involvement can create higher engagement, it can also lead to overly identifying with the user. (“This is what I do, so the user will want to do that too.”) We’ve found it useful in these cases to determine the User Types of different development team members – then their input can be contextualized from that perspective.

For example, if team members are very focused on financial education, they may be “Improvers” – a User Type that plans for the long-term and is interested in learning to improve their general situation. A solution that would appeal to this type of person would probably not engage many of the other User Types, so Improvers on the team need to keep in mind that they aren’t designing this solution for themselves!

User Types help design end-to-end experiences

An interesting thing about User Types is that they can be used at every point in designing the experience, not just in designing the user experience of the product itself. And the User Types that are relevant for the “Shop and Buy” part of the experience may be different from the core product experience – and different from the Support experience as well.

For example, you may know the types of messages that would appeal to different target customers based on their goals. But understanding prospects’ usage of social media, searching vs. browsing for information, etc., can be helpful in identifying User Types to design how to reach them.

Successful offerings are designed with an understanding of their users

Fundamentally, products and services are used by people. And while people are individuals and each of us is unique, we do have similarities and differences in the ways we think, the things we want, the patterns in our lives. By understanding those similarities and differences, we can be clear about the people we are designing for – and thereby design solutions and experiences that satisfy and delight them.