The Difference Between Users and Customers

Zebra-smallThere is a difference between users and customers. Miss it at great peril. Understand it and wisdom is yours. Or something profound like that.

Practically, creating distinction between users and customers will help you understand your business better and build a better product. The distinction is simple, but the implications are significant:

 Users use your product. Customers buy it.

Let me embellish, at the risk of detracting from an already elegant summary.

More about users…

Users use your product. They register, login, push the buttons and move the pixels. They are the people who day in day out decide if they love it, hate it, or lie somewhere in between.

Different users use different aspects of your product, so they fall into different classes. For example, you might find sales reps, sales mangers, marketing managers, and administrators all as users in a CRM system.

Users have needs (both challenges they want to overcome and aspirations). And for many products the users can be divided into segments based on their needs. For example, new users aspire to start quickly and not hit roadblocks. Power users want those complex features that give them control front and center. Get in the way of either need and you have at least one group of unhappy users. A lawyer, who needs powerful reviewing tools to manage revisions, and a high school student, who would find those same tools an absurd waste of menu space, might both use a word processor.

More about customers

Customers buy your product. They find it. Evaluate it. Decide to purchase it, and ultimately pay for it. No customers means no business so they matter a lot.

Your users may be the customers. For example, if you have an online backup system for personal files, the person using it is likely the only one who makes the decision to pay for it. At the other extreme, you might a have a CRM system where the key purchase decisions are made by people who will never actually use the system themselves.

To understand your customers, you have to understand who is making the decision to buy your product, and it’s often a group, which in common parlance is called a decision making unit (DMU). Fo example, you may think that you are selling your toy truck to the kid. The kid is definitely the user, but the DMU includes the child, mom and dad. The kid won’t want the toy if it isn’t cool and fun. But dad passionate about the environment, won’t buy it if it is made with plastic that uses BPA (one of the many toxic chemicals in every day products that mimic hormones in the endocrine system, but I digress). Finally, mom has the check book, and she is out of the picture if the truck is poor quality or costs more than 23.99. One user, a bit more complex customer (the DMU).

Just like users, customers will fall into segments based on needs. (You will see that I right a fair amount, or at least I plan to, about needs-based segmentation.) But the customer needs may look very different than user needs. Customers are often concerned with purchasing factors like price, company viability, product leadership, etc. — issues that are not about the usability or the user experience.

Ok I buy the difference, so now what?

I’m glad that you are still reading, and you seem to be taking well to the idea that users and customers are different, important, and overlapping in interesting ways. There are some interesting implications, and I’ll dig into these in other posts.

The biggest implication is how this impacts your market discovery work. You need to be thinking about how you do both customer discovery and user discovery. Often you will have different people doing these activities, different objectives, and different research tactics.

The goal of customer discovery is to find a market for you product and to build a product that prospective customers will buy. The goal of user discovery is to create a product that delights users. Products that users love get far more traction than ones they don’t like.

Customer discovery will use tactics such as:

  • Needs exploration with the DMU
  • Product validation with the DMU
  • Pricing analysis and testing
  • Marketing sizing
  • Etc.

User discovery will use tactics such as:

  • Contextual interviews
  • Walking through a prototype
  • A/B testing on a site
  • Scrappy usability tests
  • User diaries
  • Analyzing usage data
  • Etc.

Start thinking about the both users and customers and you’ll start building a better product and a better business.


  • Pravin

    Good article. All innovation efforts need fulfilling both the needs – user needs and customer needs.

  • Santhosh K S

    Very use full article. I like it.

  • dARiAn

    Who else is here for CINF 302 ?