In his now-famous book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell convincingly characterizes influential people as one of three types: connectors, mavens, and salesmen. He describes how each of these types of people have rare gifts that make them unlike regular people, they can either connect others amazingly well, be valuable sources of information, or have a knack for convincing others of something. Gladwell claims that these types of people are what make word of mouth epidemics happen.
Characterizing people as “of a certain type” is seductive. It’s an easy shortcut to explain behavior. “Oh, he’s a weirdo” we say when someone does weird things. “She’s a genius” we say when someone does something amazing that we don’t understand. “Bob’s a connector” we might say when Bob introduces us to someone important. Once we’ve pigeon-holed someone into a category, we don’t have to think further about why they do what they do…it’s because they’re that type of person.
Unfortunately for Gladwell, human behavior is much more complex than can be described by person-types. (see Duncan Watts’ Is the Tipping Point Toast?) When we try to reduce people to a type we fall prey to what is called The Fundamental Attribution Error. In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors.
In other words, when explaining someone else’s behavior, we assume they acted a certain way because of the type of person they are, not the circumstances they were in. But, when we dig a little further we see that most behavior is circumstantial…people do what they do because of the situation they’re in.
In design, since we’re designing to elicit behavior in other people, we often fall prey to the fundamental attribution error. We say things like “He’s an early adopter” or “She’s an influential” as if that somehow tells us what we need to know to design. The fundamental attribution error is pervasive…it is human nature to categorize people.
Interestingly (perhaps damningly) when we explain our own behavior, we often focus on the circumstances we are in, and not the type of person we are. We immediately start describing the events that led up to our actions…we don’t sum up our own behaviors so neatly. In addition, most people don’t like to be labeled in the exact way we often do with others.
One way to resolve the fundamental attribution error is to focus on where a person is in their UX (Usage) lifecycle, the lifecycle people go through when interacting with your product/service. By knowing where someone is in the lifecycle, we know a lot about their present circumstances and can start to focus on getting them to the next stage.
Someone’s situation isn’t always a physical situation, either. In design (especially web application design) it often means where people are mentally…where in a decision-making process they are. If someone is signing up for your service and they haven’t created an account yet, then that’s the help they need…they haven’t yet been convinced that this is valuable for them…what type of person they are doesn’t come into play.
So next time you feel like asking “What type of user is this?” ask instead “Where is this person in the UX Lifecycle?” Thinking about where people are in a process, vs. what type of person they might be, can help us avoid the pervasive, seductive, fundamental attribution error.