Why did this topic come up?
This all started when interviewing for a job at Buffer and trying to impress them with my portfolio. I was using the term "user" all over it. Thing is, Buffer's culture is all about people. Treating their staff and their customers with respect is entrenched in their culture. I had that in my mind when looking back over my work and I began to notice the catch-all term of "user" was leaving a bad taste in my mouth. It felt so abstract and dissociative. I mean, we're all human right? It was at that point I replaced those references and began using more specific, personal and contextual descriptions for those I had designed for. Though this was sparked by getting a job at Buffer, it's something I've tried to do ever since.
More than just users
We all have our jobs to do. We all use specialised terms and phrases to make it quick and efficient to communicate as a team or industry. This is a natural thing for any group or tribe to do. It's ok for business, money or data to be referred to with clinical terminology – the same can't be said when referring to people.
When I worked at SoundCloud, we spent quite some time establishing user personas. I'm not the hugest fan of these but the descriptions that arose from it were interesting. We had Listeners for those who used SoundCloud to listen. We had Curators for those who made playlists to share. We had Creators for those who made music to upload. It took a while, but across the company, the term "user" all but disappeared. Describing those people in a more nuanced way resulted in a different way of thinking across the teams. We questioned the flows a Creator would take, compared to a Listener. We questioned what features a Curator would need over a Creator. We questioned our entire approach to onboarding for each of them. That simple change of reference spurred better conversations and, ultimately, better features. Through the power of words, it baked empathy into our discourse. These terms became a standard for everyone, not just for designers.
It's ok for business, money or data to be referred to with clinical terminology – the same can't be said when referring to people.
Most digital products and services usually come down to one thing: building something of value that is worthy of payment. Good design plays an important part in this. Designers are there to wrestle the needs of the business with the needs of the people who want to do business. Designers are there to champion those people to ensure their goals are reached and their frustrations minimalised. We designers need alignment to that as we're the gateway between them and the rest of the product.
So with that in mind, the term "user" has been bugging me more and more. I feel it strips the human from everybody. When seeing points on a graph and entries in a database it's easy to forget that these people are people at all. The reality is, they are your Customers, your Readers, your Subscribers, your Followers. They are your Members, your Supporters, your Makers, your Community. Your product is nothing without them. Don't they deserve a bit of respect?
I'm no saint. I still slip with the term "user". But I believe it's about good intentions and I do my best to be mindful. A company, team or designer should always push to be closer to the people who use their products. Scrapping the term "user" is free and can be started today.
How to apply this in your work?
Just ask yourself the question, who am I'm designing for? What business are you in and how would those people best describe themselves? I would wager it isn't "user". When providing a product or service, remember who is on the other end. They are human beings trying to accomplish something, trying to feel something, trying to reach a goal, be creative or simply be entertained after a shit day. You're in a relationship with them. You're in business with them. Rethink your use of "user". It may just have a positive effect on you, your team and your product.