Why did this topic come up?
When interviewing for a job at Buffer, I was putting together my portfolio to impress them. The thing is, when I looked back over my work I noticed the catch-all term of "user" being used was leaving a bad taste in my mouth. It felt so abstract and dissociative. I mean, we're all human, right? Buffer's culture is all about people, though the way I was talking about people felt disconnected. I began replacing those references with more specific, personal and contextual descriptions. Though this was sparked by getting a job at Buffer, I have tried to do this ever since.
More than just users
When I worked at SoundCloud, we invested heavily in establishing user personas. The descriptions that arose from them were very 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. We were all encouraged to use these terms in meetings, presentations and briefs and over time the term "user" all but disappeared.
Describing those people in a more nuanced and relatable way resulted in a positive shift in thinking across teams. We questioned the flows a Creator would take compared to a Listener. We investigated what features a Curator would need over a Creator. We reworked our entire approach to onboarding for Listeners, Curators and Creators. 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.
Describing those people in a more nuanced and relatable way resulted in a positive shift in thinking across teams.
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 minimised. As designers, we need that close alignment with them. We are the gateway between them and the rest of the product.
Determine who you are building for
So with all that in mind, the term "user" has feels even more odd to me now. 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" from time to time. And there may well be more generic, established terms that are just too hard to shift. 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 powering their products and the language that is used sets a strong foundation for that. Every product is different, so ask yourself who you are building for.
How to apply this in your work?
Just ask yourself the question, who am I designing for? What business are you in and how would those using your product or service best describe themselves? I would wager it isn't "user". Remember who is on the other end when providing a product or service. 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". You may just notice a positive effect on you, your team and your product.
What do you think?
I'm curious if this topic resonates with you. Do you think it's ok to call them users? Do you use other terms in your work? Please add your comments to this article or feel free to comment over on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you have liked what you read, please consider subscribing for more content.