When we talk about creating Web sites and online experiences, we talk about users — as in, user experience, usability, user-focused design. The emergence of an entire discipline focused on end users has essentially revolutionized the Web industry (even though better serving your audience with intuitive content and design, if you really think about it, seems like a “no-duh”).
But there’s a debate simmering in the online and software communities about whom we as user experience professionals are really serving. It’s not really about who they are, but about what we call them. A number of influential people in the profession have spoken out (some vehemently) about dropping the word “user” when we think about and speak about … well, about the consumers of our work.
What’s in a word?
It seems nit-picky, but people are passionate about the word choice. Some argue that “user” bears too much resemblance to the term describing drug addicts. Others argue that it doesn’t do justice to who the person on the other side of the computer screen really is, and what he or she is out to accomplish when interacting with a site.
“The idea to design for a ‘user’ is so reductive and limiting that I think we should rid it … from our vocabulary and design practices forever!” says Pietro Turi, author of the site iamnotauser.com.
The problem is that “user” has become the anonymous and generic word for a faceless, nameless avatar of a person. A “user persona” is a made-up description of some fictional person we invent to try to get in the minds of people who use the sites we create. A “user account” is a bunch of numbers and gobbled code managed impersonally by an IT guy who doesn’t care about the frustrated flesh-and-blood having a breakdown in some cubicle somewhere because she can’t remember her password. (You might have guessed that the latter bears an uncanny resemblance to me.)
I’m fascinated by this debate as someone who is a linguist at heart and a writer by craft. I spend my days fighting for the honor of words endangered by misuse and disrespect. And I agree that we as Web experience designers and strategists must be deliberate about everything we do — including how we refer to the people we serve, if we really care about serving them with excellence.
Designing for earthlings
It’s difficult to find an alternative word that can serve as the all-encompassing description of our audience the way that “user” does. “User” reminds us that the person is more than a reader, more than a viewer. He or she can be a customer, a reader, a game-player, a journalist looking for more information. Depending on which discipline they’re most interested in, different experts have suggested substitutes — content people prefer “readers,” customer experience specialists advocate for “customer.” But therein lies one of the biggest challenges we face in Web: that specialists think and operate in silos, concerned with their own piece of the pie. UX specialists were meant to be the point of connection for everyone — the nucleus that holds everyone together to think about the cohesive experience of the — who are those people again?
There is a movement to switch to that very term: people. We design (and write) for people! Which we do … except, is the term descriptive enough? Do we design and write for just people, or for people who are information seekers and performers-of-tasks, people who are actively engaged in making our content and tools work for them?
I have been more mindful of avoiding the generic and careless term “user” as I map out strategies for successful content and design with my clients. Where possible I talk about “customers” (even when the audience may not yet be customers — I like to be aspirational). When I know the people we’re specifically creating sites for (as I often do in the B2B world), I call them that: the jewelers, the pharmacists, the employees.
Officially I am not taking a stand for or against “users.” But I do strive to keep in mind that these are real people, with real problems. They will each experience the site or application in a different way, based on their individual histories and perspectives. We can generalize but should never be dismissive of this fact: that our “users” are doing more than using. They’re learning, absorbing, solving problems, improving their lives. If we can strive for those goals with genuine humans in mind, we’ll transcend the semantics of the word and do our jobs well.