Because we are people and we should design for people!

Don’t call me ‘user’!

Posted: January 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Not a user | 53 Comments »

There was a time in the history of Human Computer Interaction when the word ‘user’ was used as a sort of calling card to give human needs and  desires the importance they deserved.
Oversimplifying 30 years of research and projects, the Scandinavia Participatory Design tradition and the fundamental contributions by Donald Norman’s books shifted the dominant engineering paradigm by putting “people first”. For the first time the final users (and their needs and expectations) didn’t come at the end with the UI design, but had been claimed to be in the center of the whole design process.
But that was the 1980’s. Now the idea to design for a ‘user’ is so reductive and limiting that I think we should rid it of from our vocabulary and design practices forever!
Here I explained why I have been trying to avoid this word for years, but I am wondering what YOU think about it, so please let me have your point of view by voting in the following poll or leaving a comment.

Are you a user?

View Results

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53 Comments on “Don’t call me ‘user’!”

  1. 1 Not-Human said at 4:28 pm on February 3rd, 2010:

  2. 2 franco said at 7:10 pm on February 4th, 2010:

    Ok, I’m starting a resolution: not using the word user (in any context) for one month.

  3. 3 Anoop said at 9:28 pm on February 5th, 2010:

    If you design for people….everything should be change
    People Centered Design
    People Analysis

    I don’t know, why it should be people?
    When we start our design, first the targeted users come into the picture not everyone. Every design, every product has a specific users not everyone. If anybody do not know how to use a computer, you can not design a website or hi-fi product for him.

  4. 4 Andrea said at 11:24 pm on February 5th, 2010:

    The only two areas where participants are calles ‘users’ are drugs and computers. – Joyce K. Reynolds

  5. 5 scott said at 12:28 am on February 6th, 2010:

    i think you are getting hung up on a very small word and making something of nothing. are there people out there protesting the fact that we call them users during our research and process? no. we know they are people… they are all unique, beautiful in their own way and they want us to design for them… who cares what we call them while we work. i’ve used web sites, kiosks, mobile devices… therefore, I am a user.

  6. 6 Anoop Gupta said at 8:08 pm on February 6th, 2010:

    Well said SCOTT. I appreciate your words.

  7. 7 David said at 12:04 am on February 8th, 2010:

    I copy here some of the comments I think you should answer from linkedin’s discussion:
    Gary Smith:
    I think you’re splitting sematic hairs by arguing any difference between designing for “people” vs designing for “users”. Neither is inherently tied to a focus on tasks or activities. In reality, you should be designing a solution for a particular audience. Your solution should differentiate you from your competition.

    Michael Hayes:
    I think the term user is still relevant. Design for the user is focusing on the “person” out, or how that person thinks, behaves and interacts with the device and how the device becomes an extension of that person; focusing on people is inclined to put more emphasis back on the product as the center. Even if we all become socially networked an integrated up the wazoo, when I have that device at my fingertips, or plugged into my brain with a USB 10th generation cord, we all want it to be intuitive to use. Even if you are talking about a single object that millions of people will use simultaneously, you still have to consider that singular experience. Of course, I will grant that someone needs to consider how a million people having singular experiences will impact each other’s singular experience; i.e. getting in and out of airports. I guess that is people design, with people as an organic system, but with more heart and humanity than anything TSA or airlines does now, where are all nothing more than rusty cogs.

  8. 8 Pietro said at 12:10 am on February 8th, 2010:

    Hi David, thank you for sharing! I’ve just sent a reply to that. I copy paste here:
    I think there are two different aspects going on here: the first one refers to the way we do our work as interaction/experience designers. My point is that the more we can observe and get to know the people we are designing for, the better. So let’s say you’re trying to envision a new concept for a mobile phone. Where does the “user” stop and the “person” begin? I begin to be “your user” (so you are interested in me), just when I am using my phone? Or maybe your concept can become more interesting if you try to enable other activities relevant to me (as a person)?

    There again, you can still do interaction design that way and call the people you’re designing for as “users”.But I don’t see the reason, since you are looking at them as “people”!

    Then there is the second point that refers to the connotation I’m giving to the two words, (and I apologise to Doctor Smith, if I sound as if I am splitting hairs). ‘User’ sounds to me rather like something detached; all too often I have heard User Experience Designers talking about the “users” more or less as automatons, who are supposed to be there to use what they are designing for them. In reality they are people, just like you and me, so much more than just someone pushing your buttons or using your products/websites/interfaces.
    And again, the funny thing is that as soon as you realize this, you start designing a better product/website/interface as well.

  9. 9 Todd said at 3:36 pm on February 8th, 2010:

    There must be something in the air. I just got on my soapbox about this just last week. :)

    Banish your Users

  10. 10 Meg said at 9:43 pm on February 8th, 2010:

    I design for people… who use things – i.e. I design for “users”. More importantly, I design specifically for the people who are going to use the product. So I am not designing for “people” in general, but instead the subset of people who are the “users” of the product. I would not design a healthcare device for people who do not need it (i.e. general “people”). I would design the device for the people who are going to use it (i.e. the subset, the “users”). Ergo, I think it is more applicable to use the word “user” than to use the word “people”.

  11. 11 Pietro said at 9:58 am on February 10th, 2010:

    Hi Meg, let me reply again with Don Norman’s words: “the various terms arose from the need to distinguish the many different roles people play in the world of artifacts, machines, and gizmos: those who specify, those who distribute, those who purchase (customers), those who actually use them (users). Those who stand by and watch. But that is still no excuse. All of them are people. All deserve their share of dignity. Their roles can be specified in other ways. It is time to wipe words such as consumer, customer, and user from our vocabulary. Time to speak of people. Power to the people.”
    The full article is the last link of my blogroll :-)

  12. 12 David C. said at 4:53 am on February 11th, 2010:

    Here is what you might be up against: (from the IXDA LinkIN discussion). In computing, a person is a person who uses a computer or Internet service. A person may have a person account that identifies the person by a personname (also person name), screen name (also screenname), or “handle”, which is derived from the identical Citizen’s Band radio term. To log in to an account, a person is typically required to authenticate himself (also herself) with a password or other credentials. For a discussion of person satisfaction, see Computer Person Satisfaction. – From Wikipedia: ‘Person (computing)’

  13. 13 David C. said at 6:05 am on February 11th, 2010:

    How about ‘PNU’? PNU’s Not User.

  14. 14 KarolD said at 4:33 pm on February 11th, 2010:

    User is (in most cases) a human being… so what is this discussion about: should we call people people?

    Yes I am happy to call my self a user! I design for users, who are actually people!!!!!!!

  15. 15 Rob said at 3:59 am on February 12th, 2010:


    Seriously! The point is that we design for people. People USE our stuff. Therefore people are users. Therefore “users” is fine!

    Let’s worry less about the semantics and more about making a difference.

    There is still so much work for us to do as a profession that we should leave the squabbling over terminology until we’re a bit more mature. For now, let’s concentrate on the big stuff. No?

  16. 16 Tim Child said at 10:56 am on February 15th, 2010:

    User: a person who uses or operates something, esp. a computer or other machine.

  17. 17 What is wrong with the word “Users”? said at 5:14 pm on February 15th, 2010:

    […] is wrong with the word “Users”? February 15, 2010 Don’ call me ‘user’! Interesting idea, nice T-shirts and some good comments in the article. This is a debate as old as […]

  18. 18 Adam said at 5:22 pm on February 15th, 2010:

    I agree with the sentiment, but in my experience it is important to emphasise to clients the difference between them, and their needs, and those of the people who will use the website or interface you are making for them. User is the best word that currently exists for this.

  19. 19 M Ferro said at 6:06 pm on February 15th, 2010:

    The user is not like me—my motto (thanks to one of my UX professors)

  20. 20 Ben said at 7:35 am on February 17th, 2010:

    I totally agree with Rob’s comment.

    The outcomes are the important bit, not how we label things. Surely as professionals have more important things to worry about?

    You even expect people to be so passionate about this to buy t-shirts?

  21. 21 Pietro said at 10:51 am on February 18th, 2010:

    @Ben Actually some people already did it and sent me their photos with the t-shirts :-)

  22. 22 domizia said at 10:20 pm on February 18th, 2010:

    What about animals? Can’t we design for users other than people?
    Seriously. We obviously need all our knowledge about human beings to design for our users but “user” is at the same time a broader term which includes “people” and a narrower one, to focus on particular human beings who use the product, service or system we design.
    When first Norman and cognitive scientists pointed out to concentrate on users’ perspective, simply wanted designers to consider people: the way they think, the way they act on the world and find workarounds. But after considering our qualities and skills of human beings, then find the differences, focus
    on users, rather than people, because despite sharing humanity, people differ in needs and goals, thoughts, expectations and a miriad of aspects.
    I suggest to reconsider the slogan as “I’m not my user” to remind ourselves not to assume our experience, beliefs and preferences as the ones of people we design for.

  23. 23 Simone Favaro said at 12:03 pm on March 3rd, 2010:

    I agree with you! We are Persons and this is a “revolutioning idea” that is growing up day by day.

    But I think we can’t demand it if we manage human relationships as a product to be consumed (Z. Bauman)

  24. 24 giovanni romito said at 2:01 am on March 4th, 2010:

    too much simple question

  25. 25 exezic said at 3:35 am on April 3rd, 2010:

    Not bad article, but I really miss that you didn’t express your opinion, but ok you just have different approach

  26. 26 Vincent said at 11:29 am on April 17th, 2010:

    That’s great, I’m totally agreeing with you: WE ARE NOT USERS!

  27. 27 Robert said at 11:32 am on April 17th, 2010:

    I think the word “user” has been used for too long in our field to be substituted…

  28. 28 Rachele said at 2:36 pm on June 23rd, 2010:

    Oohhh that’s cool!

  29. 29 rascalpants said at 8:43 pm on December 7th, 2010:

    I am a user… but I don’t design for users…

    I design for the task that needs to be completed, not users… not people.

    I don’t care who the user is, and there are way too many people out there who have their own mental metaphors and opinions as to what is best in any given situation.

    If you design for people, you get featuritis, complexity, and confusion. Think Microsoft Project.

    If you design for the task, you get simplicity… and the job done. Think Action Method Online.


  30. 30 whatever said at 10:31 pm on August 11th, 2011:

    The more that design professionals complain about things that are very simple to change instead of changing them, the more they will be ignored.

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  33. 33 Pinterest home decor ideas said at 1:19 pm on March 30th, 2013:

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  34. 34 Ruta said at 10:03 pm on June 27th, 2013:

    Wow. I don’t think people are accounting for the power of language here.

    “User” takes people out of context and turns a human being into an analytical concept. I find that it removes us too much from the context of their emotions and thoughts and instead frames them as an object performing rote tasks.

    “User” is not everyday conversational language. Because of that, it *does* alter the way we look at human beings with human needs. Framing the person as “person” (and many synonyms depending on who your main persona is) however, better enables us to imagine their hopes, desires, and expectations in language that more accurately describes who they are enriches our design.

    Someone said that calling them “people” makes for terrible feature creep. Feature creep is a result of bad management and decision making, not a result of treating humans like people with fully fledged lives.

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  36. 36 Ember Hawk said at 12:47 am on October 31st, 2013:

    Football players are people.

    Should we not call them football players?

    As several people have mentioned, user is more specific and appropriately descriptive term. I personally do not find it derogatory. There is nothing wrong with being a user, just like there is nothing wrong with being a football player or gamer or violinist or dentist or adviser.

    I think there are two different groups of people who don’t like the term ‘user’:

    people who’s minds think about the other definition of user and those who feel the term user is impersonal.

    I understand and can relate to those points of view too, but I think some people make it out to be a huge deal when it’s not. I also think that if it is such a big deal, they should come up with a better (more descriptive) word than “people”. “Students” is descriptive; “cashiers” is descriptive; “people” is not descriptive.

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