Prove Me Wrong: You Are Not the User

I wrote about this statement before, but now I have something amusing for you to prove that it is cognitively impossible to pretend not to know something, or to act as if you are a novice user.


Humans often have a strong belief in their perspective-taking abilities and especially designers are fast in replying that they themselves are users – so why would they not be able to put themselves in the shoes of the user? [1,2]

A question to you: What do you see in the picture above? At first, it might look like nothing. Look carefully. Then, check out the rest of this post >>>


Now that you know you are looking at the picture of a cow, try to see the original picture as you first saw it. See it as if it does not depict a cow. It is impossible, is it not? You cannot unsee the cow. It is just as hard for developers, product managers and designers to go back to the unknowledgeable state attributed to a novice user.

Now don’t get me wrong: I believe you can have a great idea spring up in you own mind, fed by nothing but your own experiences. But in my opinion, the next step is crucial: Analyse the actual user group and their attitudes. Uncover user behaviour, tasks, contextual circumstances. In short, don’t take your initial idea straight to manufacturing: use User Centered Design cycles to perfect it.

[1] Wallach D, Scholz S.C, (2012) User-Centered Design: Why and How to Put Users First in Software Development. Software for People, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-31371-4_2

[2] Mayhew D.J, (1999) The Usability Engineering Lifecycle: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Interface Design. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers

4 thoughts on “Prove Me Wrong: You Are Not the User

  1. I can unsee the cow, because I don’t see it, still after naming it a cow. It continues to be a puzzle fotr me. (is it a part of a rawhide? My first impression that is should be a negative image of a landscap form above prevents me from seeing a cow.

    • What an original mind you have! In order to spoil it, I’ve added an edited picture where the cow is more obvious.
      Let me know how you did with the new picture added!

  2. When I first looked at the image – nothing – as I continued to look I started seeing a close up of a cat? not really sure, after I saw the second picture of the cow I looked back at the first picture, still no cow, it still looked like a cat. The 2 blackish orbs on top the cat’s eyes and the black spot on the bottom a cat’s nose. No matter how much I went back and forth between the 2 pictures or looked at the first – no cow.
    I have lost a lot of my depth perception, and my brain sometimes has a hard time figuring out what my eyes are seeing. Maybe’s that’s why this exercise didn’t work for me. I do agree with your statement that once you know you can’t pretend you don’t know.
    I decided to double check the image before finishing up this comment and guess what – if I looked at the image with my head to the right I could see the cow, but if I moved to the center the cat came back. The further I moved back the easier it was to see the cow.
    I’m sure this was way to much commenting – sorry

    • Thank you for your comment Rebekka, I find it very interesting to hear about your insights. Certainly when someone really puts their mind to it, they can honestly empathise with people who have a different level of experience. But I think this requires a certain amount of effort and awareness. How could you get people to do this, especially if they have been trained too ‘see cows’ for years? It would be interesting to see if this is possible.

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