In Defense of the Word “User”

Ezequiel Bruni By Ezequiel Bruni  |  Mar. 26, 2019

Recently-ish, there has been a small but noticeable backlash to the word “user”. Yeah, the word for people who do, in fact, use our websites, web apps, and products.

Now, the word isn’t going anywhere, and if you like the word, no one’s saying you must stop using it. I mean, some people are saying that, but you have no obligation to actually do what they say.

So why does it matter? Why would I die on this hill? Because I think this discussion perfectly outlines the fraught relationship our industry has with words and buzzwords. Designers struggle to the complex emotional interactions between human being and interface. Developers struggle to convey math and layers upon layers of abstract-seeming logic. And don’t get me started on what happens when we try to take these concepts and reduce them to job titles…

We change job titles almost as fast as we change JavaScript Frameworks

So what’s going on with “user”? Some people consider the word outdated, which is a fair opinion to have. Some go so far as to call the current use of the word unethical, which I think might be a bit much. Some think it’s not nearly specific enough a word to use in your code, which I think is exactly right.

Now, our language does need to change and evolve with the times. That’s a part of life, and there’s no getting away from it. However at times our industry can get a little too eager to jump from one bandwagon or trend to the next without seriously considering the consequences. We change job titles almost as fast as we change JavaScript Frameworks. We tire of a buzzword, and so we start hunting for a new one, often without seriously asking ourselves these important questions:

  1. Why would we really make this change?
  2. What do we stand to lose?
  3. What do we stand to gain?


Why Would We Really Make This Change?

Taking “user” for an example: arguments against the word range from “it doesn’t reflect the relationship we have with our customers”, to “Saying ‘user’ strips a person of their circumstances…”. Then there was a mention of how the term “drug user” comes with negative connotations, and the insinuation that the negativity of that use of the word could leak into our use of the word.

I’m not going to argue these points individually, because some of them are definitely subjective and personal. If anyone thinks changing the word is going to make them a better designer, there’s no reason they shouldn’t give it a try. Heck, get back to me with the results!

If you think that being called a “user” is inherently a bad thing, maybe the problem isn’t entirely about the word

And if you feel the word doesn’t reflect your values and attitude, that’s fair too. Just don’t make the mistake of changing the word in the hopes of changing people’s attitudes. The great comedian Doug Stanhope made a fantastic point about this:

Basically he noted that back in the day, doctors would refer to developmentally disabled people as “imbeciles” or “morons”, so that’s what Doug and his friends called each other when they did something stupid. People got offended, so doctors started saying “mentally retarded”, so that’s what Doug and his friends started calling each other when they did something stupid. People now get offended at the word “retarded”, so doctors started saying…

You get the idea. If you think that being called a “user” is inherently a bad thing, maybe the problem isn’t entirely about the word. How do you feel about being called a “consumer”? There’s nothing wrong with consuming stuff, and spending money to support the people who made it, but some may find it offensive to be called by that word.

If you change the word without changing the attitude first, if you start calling users your “dear special bestest friends” in the hopes that a change in terminology alone will make for better design, you may be very disappointed. And people might start using “dear special bestest friends” as a low-key insult.


What Do We Stand to Lose?

I contend that to lose the word “user” is to lose a perfectly normal, non-insulting word that is intentionally vague and all-encompassing. Rather than stripping people of their circumstances, I rather feel it includes people regardless of circumstance.

There are certainly times when it’s far too vague, and you might want a term based on the way in which people interact with your site or app. Sure, that’s fine. But we need room for general, catch-all terms when discussing concepts at an abstract level.

I also contend that we’d be losing a well-known, mostly self-explanatory word that can help us quickly impart information to people who are new to the industry. You yourself may have no use for “user”, but it’s a great word for communicating with clients, as well as newbie designers and devs.

Seriously, every time we change the word we use for a single concept, the more confusing talking to designers gets.


What Do We Stand to Gain?

I guess if we ditch the word “user”, there might be an increased focus on specificity. A blog would have “readers”, a store could have “customers”, and so on. Being that specific and accurate all the time could certainly have its benefits.

But then what about those times when we want to be vague?

You could also argue that picking a different word might help to remind us that users aren’t just numbers, that they’re human. A different word might help you better place them in context. But then, if you need to use a different word to help you remember that users are human, with their own circumstances and contexts, perhaps the word being used is the least of your problems.


In The End:

It’s like I said: “user” is (currently) not going anywhere. The point of this article is not to alarm, or to provoke anything but thought. At this point, I think the word is like underlining hyperlinks; were we to suddenly stop, we’d just confuse a whole lot of people to no real benefit.

And yet, there’s nothing to stop you from trying something new, and switching up your vocabulary a bit. I could be wrong, and ditching the word “user” will finally get us all those jetpacks and flying cars. I have my doubts, though.


Featured image via DepositPhotos