Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey wants us to do him a favor and stop calling the people who use his product—or really any technology product—users, because it's too abstract. It sounds pretty literal to us, as these people make use of those technologies, but that's not how Dorsey sees it. He explains on his personal Tumblr:
The entire technology industry uses the word “user” to describe its customers. While it might be convenient, “users” is a rather passive and abstract word. No one wants to be thought of as a “user” (or “consumer” for that matter). I certainly don’t. And I wouldn’t consider my mom a “user” either, she’s my mom. The word “user” abstracts the actual individual. This may seem like a small and insignificant detail that doesn’t matter, but the vernacular and words we use here at Square set a very strong and subtle tone for everything we do. So let’s now part ways with our industry and rethink this.
Okay, it's totally understandable that Dorsey thinks the word user is a bit sterile. So, what, then, does Dorsey suggest we use as a more personal word? "The word 'customer' is a much more active and bolder word. It’s honest and direct. It immediately suggests a relationship we must deliver on," he writes. Customer is more honest, yes. But does he really think of his mom as a customer? Tweeters don't want to think of their brilliant, hilarious, insightful tweets as transactions. They want to be meme-makers or news disseminators, or whatever other euphemism for spitting out words works for you. User is nicer than customer, we'd say.
Perhaps Dorsey should have taken notes from his Internet elders when choosing the replacement word, going with something less capitalist-sounding than customer. The Internet has had this conversation before, and the bloggers that be settled on the more personal people, person, or even humans, as Don Norman, a consultant for technology companies at the Nielsen Norman Group, explained: "If we are designing for people, why not call them that: people, a person, or perhaps humans. But no, we distance ourselves from the people for whom we design by giving them descriptive and somewhat degrading names, such as customer, consumer, or user." For at least one developer, replacing the term user with person changed the way he thought about building things. After Thomas Vander Wal said "Goodbye to the User," he claimed he saw an actual development in his work, as he explained on his personal blog:
One benefit that came from focussing on the person and not the user has been being able to easily see that people have different desired uses and reuses for the data, information, media, etc. that the products I am working on or my clients are developing. I can see complexity more easily focussing on people than I could the user. Patterns are also easier to see looking at the individual people as the patterns resemble flows and not steps. When we focus on the user we try to fit what we built to pre-determined patterns, which we have broken into steps. We can determine steps that are roughly common points of task changing in the flows (changing from seeking to recognizing in a search task it part of an iterative flow, which we can determine is a separate step, but whether that leads to the next step or iterates a few more times is part of a person's information workflow.
If a word choice really has that much power, we hope Dorsey doesn't get the whole tech world to adopt customer. Then everything will be designed for the primary purpose of squeezing money out of us, which doesn't sound like much fun at all.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.