In defence of the term ‘users’ The pros, cons and alternatives to describing humans as 'users'

Tron

There are only two industries who refer to their target audience as ‘users’. UX designers and drug dealers.

Okay, you might have heard that one before.

It’s true though. The word ‘users’ has a bit of a negative connotation even in a technology context, perhaps bringing to mind a drone-like individual passively interacting with an interface or product. UXers have long discussed whether calling humans ‘users’ is a little insensitive, yet the term persists.

Now, admittedly, our planet faces much bigger issues than this debate about how an industry chooses to use an accepted English word, but as UX professionals we should also easily recognise that wording itself influences the way people think, feel and understand information. Maybe that’s why this conversation about terminology hasn’t died yet, and maybe that’s okay.

Why the term ‘user’ is problematic

I searched Wiktionary for the word ‘user,’ and here’s what I found.

wiki description for the word 'user'

Conclusion: of the four given definitions, half are rather not good, and one is literally pejorative

When Green Day sang, “I’m a loser and a user so I don’t need no accuser” Billie Joe Armstrong was… not bragging. And it was self-deprecating when Spoon sang, “I’m just a user, I don’t make any of this stuff.”

Nobody really wants to be called a user.

Don Norman, a person who is well-known and respected for pioneering the UX field in the 1990s and beyond, often reminds us that wording is important and we should focus on our goal of helping real, thinking, feeling people – not users. Humans. When we call them customers or users, we distance ourselves from the people who use our products by labelling and objectifying them.

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Don Norman at UX Week 2008 © Adaptive Path

I agree with Don Norman’s sentiment. I spend a lot of time thinking about ethics and technology. By dehumanizing others, however subtly, we also remain egocentric as the creators of the product. We might focus too much on the user as part of our own system, limiting our perspective. I think it helps to continually think about who users are, why they might use our product and how it helps them, rather than thinking through the lens of the product itself.

We design for people, and we should remember that. They are not artefacts of the things we design – they are the reason for the design.

Why the term ‘user’ is flawed, but acceptable

My opinion is that although the term ‘users’ is impersonal, and although it might suggest something about our own egocentrism as product insiders, it’s not terribly insensitive. When we talk generally about UX without a product attached to the conversation, what other choice is there than to talk about ‘users’ – the individuals who use something?

I cannot think of a better alternative. ‘People’ or ‘individuals’ is too vague, suggesting nothing in relation to the product. ‘Actors’ is a term used in use cases and some have suggested using it as a general replacement that gives people more autonomy. But the term ‘actors’ seems to need some explaining in this context, and I believe it would be us trying a little too hard.

stop trying to make fetch happen

It certainly does make sense to be more specific with your wording when you know who your users (or user groups, when there are a few distinct ones) actually are – like students, teachers, basketball players, patients, surgeons, bus drivers, shoppers, travellers or homeowners. Definitely be more specific whenever possible.

Sometimes, though, there aren’t specific types of users. Sometimes the only thing users have in common is that they use the product itself, and it would be awkward to force a different label.

What should we do?

The word ‘user’ is obviously not so bad, as far as words go. But ideas evolve, and industries evolve, and sometimes it makes sense for language to evolve with it.

Psychologists long ago referred to research participants as ‘subjects’, which is a habit we abandoned a few decades ago. Would you personally feel super comfortable being called a subject in an experiment? It sort of brings to mind drugs and probes and secret cameras and all kinds of unpleasantness. The word ‘participants’ is much more accurate and humanising, wouldn’t you say?

But, when it comes to UX and ‘users,’ do we really need another wording change to enforce, when the field is already difficult enough to describe and communicate?

I think it’s okay to stick with ‘users.’ The word is easy to understand, whether you’re a UXer or not, and it makes sense. It’s generalisable. And it’s widely used.

Sometimes you have to go with the words people actually use. For a while, there was insistence among technology scientists in my circles to use the preferred term ‘virtual environment’ over ‘virtual reality.’ The first term is more descriptive and accurate, whereas the second term, though widely used and recognised, is itself an oxymoron. I think we’ve lost that fight though. People need to know what you are saying, regardless of how virtuous you believe yourself to be.

In UX, I believe that as long as our users are the centre of conversation, no matter what we call them (unless we are calling them swear words), we are doing something right. To nitpick terminology is maybe beside the point, as long as we treat users well and our phrasing does not truly diminish their importance.

As in TRON, we are fighting for the users, and we should be proud of that.

For more jargon-busting, check out our super accessible dictionary of UX words and terms.

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Becca Kennedy

Becca Kennedy is a Human Factors Psychologist and cofounder of Kennason, a UX consulting company in Upstate New York. Say hello on Twitter: @becca_kennedy

One Response to “In defence of the term ‘users’

  • As an SEO, i prefer to use ‘Users’, and when I do, i’m also including search engines as a User too, so opting for something fluffier like ‘persons’ ‘people’ or ‘individuals’ just wouldn’t fit for me.

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