Has ‘User’ Become An Outdated Term?
Steve McCarthy

Great article. I hope your essay stimulates an industry-wide evolution that puts ‘user’ in the trash heap of digital culture along with other long departed terms such as LANs, CD-ROM, VOIP, multimedia, and the many other phrases that we have cast aside.

I started designing interactive media in the early ’90s, shortly after Don Norman’s coinage of “user interface design” had spread beyond the then niche domain of digital design. One of the inside jokes of nascent field of multimedia was how the software business was so similar to illicit drugs:

  • We both call our customers users
  • The first experience is free, the second one costs you (still alive and well with in-app purchases)
  • And at least in the early days of the field, if something went wrong, we pretended not to know you (aka abysmal tech support).

In synch with your suggestions, these days I’m a fan of using a term that specifically relates to the people who invest their time in your interactive creations: students or investigators for ed software; enthusiasts for niche content sites; employees or co-workers for business training software; buyers or shoppers for retail sites, contributors for content sharing sites, or in my particular field, players for health games to help alleviate medical conditions such as Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, severe anxiety, and the like.

I’m not suggesting we use the terms I just mentioned. If you’re constructing personas of the typical ‘operators’ of your designed experiences, then pick a name that identifies your target audience.

Steve, thanks again for the article. If you start building a community to help transition away from ‘users’ sign me up!

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