The difference between users and customers

Roger HuangRoger Huang | 3 minute read | May 1, 2016
How to turn users into customers - Springboard

What every UX designer needs to think about

This is a blog post contributed by our Director of Data Science, Raj Bandyopadhyay, after getting some inspiration from a friend of his who was immersed in learning UX design. 

I was talking to a friend who recently completed a 10 week UX Design Bootcamp. He showed me his amazing portfolio project and said that his dream job was to be a UX designer at Google.

I asked him, “Why Google?” Everybody wants to work at Google, but I was curious to hear his reasons.

He replied, “I’ve been a user of Google for a very long time. It has helped me learn so many new skills. This is a company I want to give back to. In general, I want to design amazing experiences for users that will help companies like Google serve their customers better.”

I was highly impressed by his enthusiasm for his mission, but I also pointed out to him, “But Google’s users are not its customers. So who would you want to design for?”

Wait, what?

A good UX designer has to start with a company’s business goals. Understanding the difference between a user and a customer is critical, because it changes the constraints that are placed on a designer, and makes a radical difference in the kind of work they do (learn more about UX design here).

How to turn users into customers - Springboard
How to turn users into customers – Springboard

As a new UX designer, when you go out into the world looking for jobs, you’ll find that a lot of tech companies you encounter fall into the following groups:

  • One-sided markets: In a one-sided market, the user of the product is more-or-less the same as the paying customer. For example, in case of a note taking app such as Evernote or photo editing software like Photoshop, you pay for the product and use it. Period.
  • Two (or multi) – sided markets: A lot of new companies are two-sided marketplaces; on one hand, there are users and on the other hand, service providers. The users typically pay the company for the service. Airbnb, Uber and Instacart are great examples of these kinds of marketplaces.
  • Ad-based companies: Companies like Google and Facebook have billions of users, but most of those users don’t pay any money to the companies. These companies make their money primarily from advertisers. As a result, the users of Facebook and Google are not their customers, the advertisers are. These companies dedicate an enormous amount of infrastructure and resources to advertisers, something the majority of users are not even aware of.

So what does this mean to you as a designer?

In a one-sided marketplace, the user experience is aligned with the business goals of the company, because the user is also the paying customer. As a result, any work that you put in to improve the user experience directly translates to improving the business, and is more likely to be shipped. For example, if you add a feature to Photoshop that makes it easier for photographers to use, it directly improves sales and retention of customers.

A two-sided marketplace places a few more constraints on you as a designer. You have to be aware of the needs of both the paying customers and the service providers, and recognize that sometimes improving the experience for one side of the market can adversely affect that of the other side. For example, some Airbnb guests might be delighted to have the ability to cancel a reservation hours before it starts, but providing that would lead to a bad experience for many hosts.

At ad-based companies such as Facebook or Google, the demands of the paying customers (advertisers) can often be directly at odds with user experience. For example, a designer might discover that users actually prefer fewer ads in their newsfeed, but reducing the number of ads would directly impact the advertisers who are Facebook customers.

So when you’re out there looking for a job, talking to companies and evaluating them, ask the following questions:

  1. What are the company’s business goals and how do they make money?
  2. Who are their users and their paying customers?
  3. How do the answers to (1) and (2) affect the design problem that they are trying to solve?
  4. Is this a design problem that I care about?

Once you have that information, you can make the right decision as to whether the company aligns with your values as a UX Designer.

Since you’re here…
Interested in a career in UX design? Rise to the top of the CV pile when you enroll in our UX Bootcamp—you’ll get a UX job or your tuition money back. Take a look at our student reviews and test out our free UX curriculum to get a feel for our style and results. TL;DR: average starting salaries for our students = $85,440. Let’s do this.

Roger Huang

About Roger Huang

Roger has always been inspired to learn more. He has written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, VentureBeat, and Techvibes. Previously, he led Content Marketing and Growth efforts at Springboard.