Why non-user experience is important too

The other day my friend and colleague, Aron Hausler, posted the following quote on digital access on LinkedIn:

One in five Australians are not online; four in 10 of the lowest income households in Australia are not connected to the internet; of people aged 65 or more, only 46% are internet users and 75% feel confused about using technology – these facts from the Telstra Digital Inclusion Index Discussion Paper aren’t news to us, they are the daily realities for staff in public libraries.


The quote was from a 2016 response, prepared by three national library associations, to the Australian Taxation Office’s Digital by Default Consultation Paper. The statistics quoted in it are ones that I think everyone working in digital transformation, or designing experiences, products and services, should stop and consider.

At a very broad level they hold a mirror up to some of the assumptions we make about digital literacy and access. The truth is that not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon and, even amongst those that have, a one size-fits-all approach does not exist. People use digital products and services in a myriad of different ways. In fact, across all the user testing I have ever done the only thing I have been able to rely on is the sheer number of different ways that people approach tasks and the diverse skills, experiences and assumptions they bring to them. If you want to test this theory, put a hamburger menu in front of ten different people and see what happens next.

These statistics also remind us that for every end-user we design for there are also those users who don’t (and maybe even never will). Remembering these non-users is really important. Forgetting them (or, worse, ignoring them)  means we are potentially missing important opportunities to make our products and services better.


Who are the non-users?

The non-users are people and communities who you don’t think will be likely to use your products or services.  They are also the people who might want to but can’t. This can be for a diverse range of reasons including the barriers to digital access outlined above as well other factors such as:

  • Disinterest/ it not being their thing
  • Loyalty to another brand
  • Fears and concerns
  • User preferences
  • Life circumstances
  • Misinformation/ perception gaps
  • Bad previous experiences

I could go on and on.

In my previous work doing digital service transformation at a utility, our non-users were the customers that wanted paper bills because they liked to file them. They were the ones who went to the post-office to pay over the counter in instalments because they didn’t trust banks or wanted to manage limited incomes as cash. They were people who didn’t have access to the internet for a range of reasons or who were concerned about the security of online sites. They were the ones that never signed up to use our new products and services.

In my current role helping to design and build a new museum, our non-users are likely to be young adults who hate the idea of a museum or a gallery. They might also be the ones who don’t (or can’t) come to the city because they live too far or their parents won’t let them or because they have other barriers to access. They might be people who feel (for whatever reason) that our museum is not for them.

These contexts are very different however understanding non-users, and what drives them, is critically important to doing better design in both.


How can non-users help you design better?

Designing for end-users is, of course, really important. They will help you define journeys, identify pain points and let you know when their expectations have been met or exceeded. They can help you benchmark against KPIs for conversion and adoption. They can give you feedback on what is working well and what isn’t.

But end users can only tell you so much. By focussing just on them we potentially miss other important information that could make our designs better – particularly when the overarching (inevitable) goal is a great customer experience for everyone. I’m not sure about you, but as a designer driven by my own curiosity, I really want to know what we are potentially missing!

If we consider non-users in our design processes and projects it makes it easier to think holistically both about our problems and the way our designs can help solve them.

These are just some ways non-users can help:

1.They can help you understand the impact your design will have on all customers. Your new product or service will rarely exists in a vacuum. If you design in one you could miss impacts in other areas you are not looking at. For example, will a new automated online service have a positive impact on non-users by freeing up the phones to provide a better experience to those who want to talk to a real person or will it remove choice for those that can’t go online negatively impacting their experience? These questions are hard to answer without including these users in your design process.

2.When the impact is positive they can provide further support for your business cases. One of the best ways to sell transformation projects to your business is to show how they can help everyone achieve more. With this in mind, my past (successful) pitches for digital transformation projects have always included the benefits for non-digital users too. These are often your basic tenets of great customer experience: first contact resolution across all channels, happier and more helpful staff, efficient processes and reduced wait times.

3. They can help you better understand the drivers and motivations that keep your non-users in the never space. It is worth asking, for example, what is so good about what they are doing now that makes them stay (and is there anything you should be replicating in your design)? It is also worth knowing what barriers they have so that you could potentially solve them. In terms of tweaking your communication, it is also valuable to understand their perceptions (of your brand, service or product) and think about how can you use these insights to improve the way you talk to them.

4. They help your teams empathise with all your customers in unexpected ways. Often digital teams are made up of people who live and breathe tech and who access and use it in a similar way. As human centred designers it is really important that we  regularly remind ourselves that not everyone is like us. Non-users often provide insights into critical issues like accessibility, literacy, the social and geographic factors influencing engagement with services and those that provide them. They show us what life is like outside the walls of our offices; they often reveal both struggle and joy laid out in real-terms. They are always worth listening to.


Some easy ways to include your non-users in your design process

You can include non-users easily within existing design processes. Here are a few quick ways you can use the standard Design Thinking / Human Centred Design toolkit (this list is not exhaustive and I’d love to hear your ideas, tactics and tools in the comments below!):

Talk to non-users early on. Find out why they don’t use your products and services, what they see the barriers as being and what would make them consider changing teams. Use interviews, surveys or facilitate a workshop.

Map the journey of a non-user. How is it different, what insights does it provide, what are the opportunities?

Prototype a new product or service for a non-user. Get teams to explore their needs, drivers and motivations.

If you are using personas, include one of a non-user using the insights you have gleaned from the above.

If you have a prototype, product of service that is live show it to a non-user and get their feedback. Is it what they expected? What would the change about it? Has it changed their views?

I’d love to hear other ways you are including, or thinking about, non-users as part of your projects. What are you learning?

2 thoughts on “Why non-user experience is important too

  1. Great article Anika! Something I get frustrated hearing is when an organisations says they have great customer feedback – when all it is is a survey of current customers… All this does is encourage confirmation bias. It’s the feedback from non-customers that will give you the real truth and valuable information to design products and services better.


    1. Thanks Catherine! I 100% agree. It’s always the icky, uncomfortable and challenging stuff that pushes us to design better and I think solving those type of complex problems is where creativity truly lies.


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