What do you call your people?

A question for designers, and the clients that hire them.

Photo credit: Frankieleon via Compfight

What do you call your people? The reason I ask is that it matters. Design is about people, and we spend half our days trying to understand people, build rapport and relationships with people, empathize with people, explain and advocate for people, tell stories about people and create things that people will use.

Use. That word is important too — because in design, we call people “users.” This term can be off-putting to those outside of design; they think it sounds weird — either techie (computer user) or addict (drug user). So for the record, when we say “users,” we mean people. Specifically, people who will use the product or service that we are designing.

That’s why it’s called user-centered design. The design is centered around the user. They may not be a current user — we are optimistically assuming they will be a future user of our product or service — but “user” has become our go-to term in the design industry.

And different industries have different words for people. I love that folks working in housing might say they are resident-centered, and people working in education might say they are teacher-centered or student-centered or parent-centered. Sometimes our work is focused on larger groups like communities, in which case we aspire to be community-centered. Identifying your user, and then saying your work should be (your user)-centered, can have a powerful rallying effect. In what ways is it user-centered today? In what ways could it improve?

However, we have to be careful — because these words are powerful. They can change how we think about people. For example, if I label someone a “patient,” I picture someone who is sick and vulnerable. I want my healthcare work to be patient-centered, but that’s no substitute for going out and understanding actual patients, who are also people. So we need to be wary that words for users don’t turn into personas, which can be somewhat de-humanizing or one-dimensional.

So call your people whatever you want, but call them something. Once you’ve got an inclusive and appropriate name, you’re ready to do the real work of becoming people-centered.