Let’s stop referring to ‘Users’

We need a term that is more human and empowering.

From the Meriam-Webster Dictionary.

noun us·er \ˈyü-zər\
1. a person or thing that uses something
2. a person who frequently uses illegal drugs

Before computers the term ‘user’ was used by one type of industry, narcotics and addiction. It still has those connotations in English:

Synonyms for user
addict, dopehead, druggie (also druggy), fiend, freak [slang], head, hophead [slang], hype [slang], junkie (also junky), stoner, doper

The term ‘user’ suggests a one way interaction. A person who uses something. There’s no two way dialogue. No human element to the word, if anything the term dehumanises as it suggests they are nothing more than a passive consumer.

The problem we face is the term is ubiquitous in the digital industry it’s hard to challenge the norm. User Experience, User Research, User Stories; all common place. The term is in my job title and all over my website.

I’m suggesting we try, we use alternative terms. If you are a business talk about customers, if you are university talk about students, if you are in government talk about citizens. Choose a term that is more human. Let’s empower our customers, students & citizens and call them something that gives them a voice. If we do that then maybe we’ll be more user-centred human-centred in our work.

2 Responses to “Let’s stop referring to ‘Users’”

  1. Nestor

    I think it’s a good idea to encourage the use of more accurate terms and synonyms than “user” when possible. However, I’m not a fan of ditching the term user once and for all. Why?

    1) Sometimes using a generic term like “user” is more inclusive and that’s a good thing. I.e if I pitch a project to gov.uk and suggest it’s a project for “citizens”, providing I am myself not a “citizen” but a “resident”, that will leave me out of the audience of the project. To be more accurate also means to be more exclusive when dealing with people.

    2) “User” is more specific than “people” as it implies a certain relationship with the product/service.
    I.e: For most people, the term customer means “someone who already bought something from someone”. Therefore a business owner might think I’m ignoring an important bit of his target audience if I refer to his “customers” in a pitch. Using “prospects” and “customers” in a sentence becomes too long and adds unneeded complexity. How to name the whole lot? There you go… users.

    I think there’s a place for the term, and in fact we designers should introduce it more so it means less “addict, dopehead, etc” and more “person who uses a product/service/space/institution/process/whatever”.
    What I like about “user” is that it’s a very generic term but implies certain degree of intentionality and engagement (sorry but I don’t agree it suggest passivity). If you “use” something, you normally have a very active role… think about what “using people” means… or “using an object”.

    So when I use “users”, to some degree I’m referring to “the people who wants to use your stuff”, which is a nice subtle reminder to CEOS, owners etc of why they should spend resource in making things right for that people.

    Just my two pennies’ worth, really like to read your thoughts so keep up the good work.

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