There have been a number of posts around the web about not using the term “user” any longer when talking about designing for experiences. Don Norman, one of the leading consultants and speaker on design thinking wrote a post and gave a talk back in 2008 at an adaptive path conference on not using the term user. More recently, almost a year ago Facebook’s director of product design, Margaret Gould Stewart shared in a conference how they have banished the term “user”. At first this seemed to me to be a bit pedantic. I am not sure how referring to people as “people” or “humans” can make a team more empathetic as those are also abstracts. However, I find myself now cutting out the term wherever I can as it seems to be taking further hold in the experience design community. Yet, this leads to challenges as I struggle how to efficiently communicate design concepts to other team members and in terms of job titles.
In particular it would be impractical, when looking for a job or finding an employee with skills and the responsibility of designing for experiences, to search using the term “experience” alone. “Experience architect” also is not going to bring back the best results. “Digital experience” would seem to me to be just as abstracting of people and “People experience architect” just seems awkward. So I am not sure what is the best way to refer to the role/person responsible for what is still commonly referred to as UX architecture or UX design.
In my work, I find myself using the term “customer”, but there is already customer experience which is not generally involved in design or architecture as much as it is about improving processes and support infrastructure. I also feel that customer is presumptuous as a person may not have decided to have or want a relationship with a business. Can you really refer to someone who has declined your products or services as a customer? And “customer” also seems a bit commercial and de-humanizing as well.
Which is where I think Facebook realized that since they don’t actually sell anything direct to consumers, using “customer” did not make much sense for them as well. There is also the old saying that, “if you do not know what the product is, then you are the product”, which I am sure they also wanted to stay away from that negative connotation. However, I do think it is fair for them to want to find something else to use as a reference as they are about connecting people together. And like any other business, they need to make money to grow the FB business as well as to support their own families. It’s also great that they have a dedicated empathy team now. Hopefully, that will guide them away from doing more egregious things that harm the very people that they seek to support with their platform.
So where does that leave things? Right now, as I mentioned, I use “customer” more often than not. I also try to use the word “people” when it will work and not cause me to write 3 sentences where previously 1 sentence would have been fine if I were still using “user”. I still use “user” on occasion as it is so deeply ingrained. But I am doing this myself to as a kind of thought experiment to see if it really makes a difference to myself and the people I work with. Ultimately, I wonder though if it is not possible to still refer to “users” and still be able to have empathy and consideration for their needs.
Links in article:
Words Matter. Talk About People: Not Customers, Not Consumers, Not Users, Don Norman, retrieved 2015-12-3
Facebook: We Don’t Call Them ‘Users’ Any More, We Call Them ‘People’, Lara O’reilly, retrieved 2015-12-03