The critical difference between user needs and customer needs

by | Oct 7, 2021

Your organization exists to solve a problem. To do a job – that’s what gives it purpose, and it’s critical to growing and scaling an organization. You must be able to build and deliver solutions that are laser-focused on user needs.

But user needs are not the same as customer needs. In fact, mixing up the two can cause a world of challenges.

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User needs vs. customer needs

Particularly in digital product design, the words “user” and “customer” have different meanings. Even though they appear to mean the same thing, the difference between the two can make or break your growth.

At a high level, user needs are broader and more inclusive. On the other hand, customer needs are narrow and more transactional. Both types of needs have a place in your organization but understanding that subtle contrast is a massive competitive advantage – and one that serves as the backbone of your product strategy.

To illustrate this further, let’s dig into the contrast in more detail.

Customers and users are both important but for different reasons.

All customers are typically users, but all users are not customers. 

Customers are people you want to keep happy, so revenue doesn’t drop. The very word invokes the selling side of a business. Customers belong to markets, products and services.

Being user-centric, on the other hand, puts the focus on the creation and delivery of a product or service rather than the sale. It also concentrates on the needs of those customers, instead of the needs of the sales team to sell to them. 

When you think of your audience as users instead of customers, your orientation shifts to the more intimate and difficult job of meeting individual people’s needs. Users are individuals – humans that need to get a job done. A “customer” is a label – a party that pays you in exchange for your solutions.

User needs drive detail and empathy

To understand why user-centered design stands out, let’s look at an example from the restaurant industry.

Any experienced restaurant owner understands the difference between user needs and customer needs. They know that they’re not just peddling food. The noise level, lighting, décor, and cleanliness are also obvious factors of a good dining experience. 

Other, more subtle factors include the server’s attitude and availability, the timing of the courses, the way the food looks on the plate, and whether the maître d’ acts like they know you. Consider every touchpoint – every detail of the user experience – to keep driving growth. Competitive advantages and customer retention come from an obsession with details

Successful restaurant owners try to deliver an experience they themselves would like to have. 

As a user of products, ask yourself: Am I creating and delivering something that I would personally rave about? If your honest answer is no, it’s time to zoom out and take a more user-centered approach.

User needs avoid disruption

Too often, leaders get trapped in the silos of their existing products and services and lose sight of whether their offerings truly meet user needs. Symptoms of this include:

  • The “we’ve always done it this way” attitude
  • Fear of investing in new products or markets that could fuel exponential growth
  • A desire to build what leaders or product managers want to build, not necessarily what the markets are demanding

Not focusing on user needs is all too common. That is, until some new competitor arrives and starts stealing market share by delivering a superior experience.

The history books are filled with organizations – too big to fail – that were indeed defeated by their underdog disruptors. 

Why does this happen? Because disruptors typically focus entirely on user needs.

User needs broaden your horizons

How many of your users are not yet paying customers?

Take the freemium business model, for example.

This involves creating a layer of free goods or services to entice people to ultimately purchase. This type of model depends on a user-centric focus, not just for product development but for all aspects of delivery. Broadening your view to users is essential with freemium business models – the majority of your users are likely not paying customers yet. And you can’t ignore the majority of your user base. 

While this is one real-life example, it’s hard to think of any organization where user needs shouldn’t be central to major decisions.

Place user needs in the middle of the bullseye

To put users at the center of your organization – especially in product development – follow this roadmap:

  • Hold a persona discovery workshop with your organization.
  • Validate the assumptions proposed from your persona discovery workshop with existing (or new) market research. Hold one-on-one interviews with actual people who “personify” those target profiles (aka personas) and dig deeper into web usage and customer data.
  • Perform a gap analysis and customer research to determine how well your existing set of products and services meets those demonstrated user needs. Those gaps will reveal market opportunities as well as ways to improve your current offerings.
  • Make sure your entire staff understands and buys into these user personas, as they can become constant, valuable companions in future discussions about all kinds of decisions. 

Build it into your culture 

Successful organizations weave user needs into their culture, influencing decisions at every corner.

User-centered design principles are too often confined to product development or creative departments. This shouldn’t be the case. Meeting user needs, instead of focusing after the fact on “customer satisfaction,” should be the foundation of your entire organization.

 There’s a lot to unpack once you choose to be a user-centered organization, but the first step is acknowledging the important difference between user needs and customer needs ­– and taking steps to distinguish the two in your organization. 

Len Gilbert

Mike Mills, Managing Director

Mike delivers client satisfaction by taking a user-centric approach toward strategic planning, content strategy and digital publishing. Mike has 30+ years of experience in digital publishing and journalism. His passions include tackling complex business, technology and communications challenges, as well as leading teams to develop a vision and approach for solving them.

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Mike Mills


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