Why I think it’s good to refer to people as users, if that’s what they are

May 18, 2018


Every once in a while, the user experience design community has a conversation about what to call the people who interact with the things we design. Is it dehumanizing to call them users? Is it bad business? Should we use words like customer, human, person? It tends to go on for a bit, and then be set aside until the next round.

I mostly don’t devote a lot of time to the debate, but in recent years as I’ve been trying to introduce the process of user-centered design to people who are decidedly outside the world of design (ministers, activists, etc) I’ve come to realize that I do have an opinion, and that I think there’s value in referring to people who interact with our stuff as users.

Design strategy

One of the pieces of the design process that I really like doing, and also that I like talking about with others, is design strategy. It is so easily forgotten, overlooked, or ignored, and indeed it is difficult, but I’ve found that designs will fail without it.

When I’m talking to people, I describe one of design strategy’s key insights like this:

Design strategy is how you holistically consider organizational needs, user needs, and the medium in which they interact.

Maybe that doesn’t feel particularly groundbreaking, but most things that are put out into the world indeed don’t consider all three of these things, much less in a holistic way. Design strategy recognizes that users and the organizations interacting with them don’t necessarily have the same needs, but that they need to be considered together.

Calling people users can help you focus on them, and not you

Many organizations are comfortable thinking about the people they serve in distinct ways. But also, they may like to refer to them in terms they feel are less utilitarian than “user.” Businesses may like to think of them as customers. Non-profits may say members. Publications may refer to them as readers.

I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with any of these words (though I think how you feel about some of them depends on your analysis of capitalism), but when it comes to design I think they fail to recognize that people’s interaction with a design, with an organization, is bound to specific parts of their lives.

Organizations tend to center themselves when they build things. This is understandable. They devote their existence to whatever it is they’re creating in the world. They’re probably passionate about it. It probably demands a large portion of emotional capacity that people intimately involved with it have to give. It is understandable that when they talk about whatever they’re creating, they default to talking about themselves.

But this is insufficient. People who interact with organizations are doing that, by definition, as a smaller part of their lives. If they’re reading your publication, for example, they’re doing it for a moment in time. They’ll go do something else after they finish, and they’ll probably not think of you again until they come back. They will likely devote more emotional energy to other parts of their lives.

The amount of time between interactions varies, of course, based on what organizations do. But it’s important to articulate that users are interacting with you – they’re using the thing you put into the world – for specific moments in their lives, for specific reasons, specific goals that are important to them and may not be the same as yours. These things should be important to you. You need to know about these things to design something that works for them.

To center a user is to center their needs, their context, who they are, even when those things don’t overlap with yours.

Calling people users can remind you that they’re different from you

I’ve found that articulating a separation between creators and users is often where many non-designers (activists, for example) balk. This is understandable. It can be uncomfortable for organizations that want to impact the world, to impact humanity, to think of themselves as different from it, in that sense.

I think in general these organizations are already different from the people that interact with them, even if they don’t want to be. For example when it comes to the church – the church depends, in many ways, on a separation between clergy and laypeople. Each has fairly specific roles, specific relationships with the other, specific things that separate them, specific expectations placed on them. This varies across traditions, but it is nearly always there.

When it comes to design, it’s not necessarily role, relationship, external separators, or expectations placed on people that separate creators and users. It is context. It is the realization that as an organization builds something, as it puts something out into the world, it does this with people usually having spent lots of time, lots of energy, lots of knowledge, having done lots of work, in order to put that thing into the world. As I mentioned above, people in organizations put their passion into putting something out there.

This is how you create anything. But doing this work creates a separation from the people who haven’t done it. I want to be clear: this isn’t necessarily (though sometimes it is) a separation of skill, capability, power, or anything outside the confines of a single designed experience. The people who didn’t design it don’t have the knowledge of everything that went into designing it. They don’t know the intentions, they don’t know the goals, they don’t know the process that created it. All they can see is the result, and this by nature separates them from the people who did the work to create the result.

I’m a fan of one of Jared Spool’s favorite statements, “design is the rendering of intent” because all of this is true. Design is how organizations put their intentions into the world, how they enflesh them. Organizations imagine something, and then they take steps to make it real, to make it exist. These steps they take are what create a separate context between them and their users. Users haven’t taken all those steps. They don’t know what went into them; all they know is the result.

How good, how specific, how intentional, how impactful each of these steps is dictates how closely the experience users have will come to the experience the organization wants. But there’s always a distance.