The Death of “Users” and “Product Design”

On examining what we say and mean


The Facebook company all-hands in January was—as most company all-hands are—wildly energetic, brimming with enormous plans for the new year, and not without a few inside jokes about chicken nuggets. But there was one thing that Mark said, a small note in the grand scheme of things, that still sits fresh in my mind every single week. “We need to stop calling people users,” he said. “They’re not just there to use our products; we’re here to build things for them.”

People, not users.

Now, it’s not like immediately afterwards at Facebook HQ, the word user was never uttered again. (The semantics police did not jump out of the bushes to apprehend offenders, if that’s what you’re thinking.) After all, it was a small comment in a long talk, and in practice it’s hard to flip a switch on something that rolls so easily off the tongue after years of habit. User experience. Monthly Active User. New users. Power users. Not to mention, a direct substitution of “people” for “users” often leads to longwindedness. (Compare “for power users, we implemented x feature” versus “for people who are more experienced with our product, we implemented x feature.”)

Obviously, a semantic change doesn’t change what you’re building. It doesn’t suddenly produce more lightbulb moments of dazzling inspiration. Words are words, a layer of abstraction on top of our true intentions, and swapping one term for another doesn’t change those intentions.

All the same, it’s silly to think there isn’t any power in words. Everything that is said carries with it rich shades of subtext and assumption, whether we mean them to or not.

“We need to stop calling people users.

Of course we do. The product is always in service of people, not the other way around. It’s easy—so very, very easy—to fall prey to a company-minded mentality of the world, where everything revolves around the builders and what they’re building rather than the customers. This bias is so pervasive we hardly even notice it: “We need to improve our top of funnel.” “We’re not getting enough conversion on this feature.” “This user messaging needs to be tweaked.”

Calling people users is a symptom of that, where suddenly they becomes a modifier, something in-relation-to the the subject placed on the pedestal: the product.

And that’s just backwards. People don’t exist to use your products; you build products with the goal that they can be useful to people.

In a similar vein, as I was writing my last article, the semantics of product design kept badgering me. Was it the right label? When I started my first job, product design was a newer concept in the online world. The terms web design, or graphic design, or interaction design were more common. But none of those quite captured the idea of designing not just for a specific medium or within a specific discipline, but making something end-to-end: a living, breathing, thing. Being a product designer meant doing graphic design AND interaction design AND branding design and whatever else was needed to fulfill the promising of delivering a great end product.

But now, I’m starting to think product design carries a number of limiting biases as well. Because when you think about a product, you think about something tangible. Something you can touch and see and play with. Something that has shape and form.

Sometimes, the best design work is invisible, and the term product design tends to undervalue that.

Sometimes, the best design work is not just about a product, but about creating a great experience outside of a product, and the term product design tends to undervalue that also.

One of the things Joe Gebbia always said to me about Airbnb was that he cared much more about the entire experience of your vacation—whether you felt welcomed by your host, whether you were able to easily find and get into the apartment you booked, whether your expectations for the place were met (and exceeded)—than about exactly how you felt as you were interacting with the Airbnb app to make a booking. The functionality of “finding a nice/unique/convenient/affordable place to stay” is technically what many people use AirBnb for, but the real goal is for you to have a wonderful, memorable time wherever you’re going.

In that vein, the future of design will be more and more about crafting experiences rather than products, shifting closer to the industry of service and away from the industry of manufacturing. We’re starting to see this already with more integrated platforms and simpler, less-frictioned apps (Yo, Wut), more magical and predictive experiences (Siri, Google Now), more connected objects that talk to each other to holistically make things easier (health trackers, smart watches, home appliances), and greater transformations in connecting the online to offline world (Lyft/Uber, Postmates, Tinder).

Goodbye, user. So long, product design. Long live the notion of designing better experiences for people. That’s what I’d like to wake up everyday and strive to do.