In defense of “users”

Every few weeks, some wannabe UX “thought leader” takes a “brave” stand against the word “user.” The only users in the world are drug users, they sneer. It’s dehumanizing. We should use the word “person” instead. It’s one of those debates that appears meaningful and principled, but is more noise than signal.

I’m actually ok with the word “user.” I design products for use. I like to consider people performing actions, while using them. What the experience is before, during, and after use. “Person” is static; “user” is not.

I’m not necessarily opposed to “person” per se and employ it on occasion, but “person” to me seems more dehumanizing than “user,” like 1960s robot speak. Person make computer go!

Sure, you could use pronouns, but then you run into the gender problem. You can use “they” as a gender-neutral singular (it’s allowed now) but that doesn’t work in every circumstance. And you can’t start out with “they” or risk confusion: “They open the app and…” Wait, there’s more than one person using this at a time?

Using persona names (“Bob pushes the button”) in documentation can work as long as everyone is onboard with the personas and know them intimately. You don’t want people tripping over a name when the point is to detail the activity. Who is this Bob guy anyway?

If you want to rage against a word to describe people’s relationship to a product or service, there’s far worse words than “user.” Take “customer” for instance. That turns a human being into an ATM machine. (And yes, I know in Enterprise design there is a big difference between the “customer” or “buyer” and the end user.) See also: “consumer,” which might even be worse, transforming a person into a seemingly monstrous gaping maw of needs.

Sometimes, especially in services, when there are multiple people involved, you do need more than one designation. “Server” and “Customer” and “Cashier” etc. are necessary role signifiers to make sense of what’s happening.

Yes, drug addicts are also “users.” But come on. There are plenty of words with double meanings that don’t get confused in context. Saying “She’s a real fighter,” about a cancer patient doesn’t mean she’s a boxer. All baseball players aren’t “players” and so on.

Words do matter, and word choice matters. But you’re not diminishing anyone or any group of people by using the term “user.” User is a perfectly fine, gender-neutral, activity-positive term for the person engaged with your product or service. Feel free to use it.