People vs. Users: The Ultimate Buzzword Battle

Hi, user, I’m heading out for lunch. Do you want to join me?
Wow, how long has it been? 20 years? I haven’t seen you since graduation, user!
Hey, user, I’m making your favorite dinner tonight so you better bring home an appetite!

Stop for a moment and realize how ridiculous these statements are. Those three sincere and decent individuals might as well be speaking to a cardboard box. Well, in effect, they are.

Whenever people say ‘user’ in place of person, human, or Sarah, I throw up in my mouth a little bit. The fact that the entire discipline that I love, respect, and admire is called ‘User Experience’ makes me want to jump off a tall bridge. Curse you, Donald Norman! (not really, you are a pioneer in the field).

Let’s face own it, being human is awesome. We feel. We aspire. We dream. We imagine. We create. We paint masterpieces. We write symphonies. We build towers of glass and steel to the sky. We craft digital experiences (wink). We are, each of us, destined for greatness. And we have only just begun to reach our full potential. So where in all this splendor of human existence did we get relegated to being ‘users’?

You, reading this post right now, are a son…or a wife…or a kid’s soccer coach…or an entrepreneur. You may be a maker, a mentor, or a mother. You are unique, a snowflake, if you will. One thing you damn sure aren’t is a number, a piece of data, a record, a unit of measurement to be quantified. You deserve better than to be herded into a coral of nameless, faceless users like cattle.

When we, marketers, strategists, analysts, agencies think of real people as users we do them (and us) a disservice. We miss the point of what User Experience is supposed to be about: to enhance the human experience, to create delight, to entice action, to drive emotion.

Users don’t have experiences, people do.

The continued use of ‘user’ removes any notion of empathy from the design process. Nothing of value is provided. Nothing of delight is created. Business requirements within a spreadsheet are merely marked ‘complete’ and we’re off to the next ‘big thing’. Marketers and analysts get their data. Agencies collect awards for a beautiful design. But Lisa, who is trying to register two of her daughters for camp, late at night, after working all day, nearly abandons the process altogether because the registration process is not clear. Frustration sets in when clear feedback is not given and something goes wrong with the processing of her payment. There’s no clear next step. She has no idea whether she successfully registered her daughters for camp or if they won’t be allowed off the bus when it arrives. Why? Because the business merely thought of her as a ‘user’ and threw an old paper registration form online without directions, hints, etc. They didn’t consider the context of how, when, or where Lisa would try to register her daughters…because she’s a ‘user’.

Though there may be a piece of glass between the experiences we create and the people we create them for, they are still flesh and blood. They have purpose. They have needs and wants. They look to us to make their lives easier. And while it is sometimes tempting to group them together so we can create behavior models and templated user (grr!) interfaces, we must remember that we are engaging with individuals, on a one-on-one basis, in each interaction.

The person on the other end of an experience is not a user. She’s Lisa from Memphis, Tennessee, wife of Harold, mother of 3 girls, baker of brownies, accountant by day, and fierce Scrabble player by night. We need to show her some respect.

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