abstract computer users with one highlighted with a red bullseye

The Paradox of the Power User

If you’ve been doing enterprise-level UX for awhile you may run into the phenomenon of finding a subset of users who LOVE a system that almost all other users can’t stand and can barely use. Behold the power user. The blessed frequent users who use the system the most, who are the most adept and knowledgable.

Why on earth wouldn’t you listen to these angels, when the vast majority of your interview and testing subjects are discouraged, angry, or even worse: resigned? The answer is that in hard-to-use systems, adept users have created a mental model that has skewed from the norm.

A mental model, roughly, is the internal representation people create about how things are structured and how they work. I know that sounds like “everything ever”, so let’s use a specific example: a modal window vs. a browser interface. Because we have a mental model about how a modal window works – it displays ancillary information and then is dismissed or goes away – we are comfortable clicking on the little “x” (sometimes it is very little) and closing it. A person who had never used a browser might treat those windows equally, they might be afraid to close the modal – after all closing a browser shuts down the entire program.

Systems that seem just baffling, and I’ve worked on a few, go beyond simple usability hurdles such as being slow, not showing status, or being visually cluttered. Instead they can present a “sinister” mental model.

I recently worked on a website that turned the idea of user registration on its head. The site enabled customers to look up stuff they had purchased and buy additional options. This system required a username, password, and a unique token — a number that was printed on paper included in the shipping materials. Multiple items could have this same number if included in the same shipment, or a number might apply to a single item.

It gets worse: a number could apply to one user, or be shared by multiple users. Other users could “borrow” numbers.  For each function in this system, the user was re-prompted to enter the number. Compare this to the standard mental model of username + password = show me my stuff. For most users, the only way to be successful was to start the process by calling support.

A good number of power users had no issues. They were on the site all day, every day and had their own spreadsheets and order of operations.  They knew workarounds, and people to call in the company outside of standard support. By doing specialized tasks over and over, they had normalized a sinister mental model.   And some did not want change, because their normalization was hard-won, and gave them a sense of job security. You tend to see this sometimes with SME’s, admins, and coders on old legacy systems.

As a UX’er you can still get a great deal of value from these users if you study their workarounds, their “cowpaths”, their cheat sheets and secret methods.   It’s as if power users are doing continuous user testing for you. It’s smart to leverage their knowledge in order to help the next version of the product embody a more user-friendly mental model.