Because we are people and we should design for people!

To prepare my thesis entitled “User Involvement in the Creative Process” for my degree course at Siena University, I had the chance to interview several well-known interaction designers around Europe. Their contributions from different perspectives taught me some of the greatest lessons of my life. But one of them, Job Rutgers from Philips Design, was particularly radical in his approach: in 2002 he claimed that at Philips they had been avoiding the word “user” for years because of  its connotations.
Here is a short abstract of that interview:

“Well, first of all let’s get rid off the word user and let’s talk about people… Because user implies something totally internal: I’m a user, I want to use this machine, so let’s use it. This is a utilitarian/task cognitive approach to interaction design, a rather medieval kind of approach.
If you talk about people, what they are and what they do in their daily lives, there are so many opportunities to discover… so users will not evolve, they will die out, but people will remain and I would like to talk about their lives and conquests.

This was almost ten years ago and from that day on I decided to force myself to avoid using the word ‘user’. Moreover, sice then, I have been trying to convince my friends and colleagues to do the same.

Recently I wrote an article on my company blog called “Designing the User Experience in 2010”. Naturally I felt uneasy with the word ‘user’, but  I excused myself with one of the classical justifications we all adopt: “I did it for the sake of simplicity”.  A few days later though, one of my colleagues came up to me and said “Pietro, in the end, you went back on your word! Everyone still uses the word ‘user’, there’s nothing you can do about it…

This rather provocative comment did not come from a business man in a grey suit, but  from a very smart and serious interaction designer, then I suddenly remembered a Don Norman’s video at Adaptive Path Ux 2008.

If Norman, one of the fathers of User Centered Design, can say that “one of the horrible words that we use is users” and prefers to call them “people”, I think the battle is not yet lost.
Unfortunately, even if it’s not true that everybody still adopts the word ‘user’, what is true, however, is that the majority still do. That’s why we go to UX conference, we call ourselves User Experience Designers, we write User requirements, we design User Intefaces and we perform User Tests.
But I hope that this might change in the future. Actually it’s already happening! Apart from the above examples, there are world leading design firms, such as IDEO (David Kelley at TED 2002 or Human Centered toolkit), who decided to replace the word ‘user’ with ‘human’ or ‘people’ in their design methodology.

I strongly believe that the words we use have a substantial impact on how we see and categorize the world,  therefore this shouldn’t just be choosing an alternative word, but paradigmatically changing your design approach.

In short, don’t call us ‘users’. Keep ‘people’ in mind when designing!