Dropping the U-Word

The word user is an easy way to refer to User Experience in general terms, but it’s flawed as the default word for people that use products.

The word user carries a set of assumptions and hides the actual people you are designing for behind a vague and meaningless bit of jargon. Users aren’t in control of what they’re using, they’re lemmings to their product.

This is an apt description of a Facebook, Google or drug user: a person without agency trapped in some dystopian Nir Eyal product. These companies get the buzz, but my hunch is that the majority of us in the UX industry don’t build these sorts of products.

I do UX writing for software that helps business owners manage their online presence, accept payments and provide services. These people aren’t users — they’re merchants, business owner, entrepreneurs or in a word: customers. The word customer evokes an obligation from me. They’re paying money so that I provide the best possible product to help them run their businesses.

There is no obligation to a user. Keep them “engaged”, run ethically dubious tests and monetize them. A user has no recourse, no customer support they can reach out to.

As a writer, I know that changing the words I use creates a subtle shift in perception. That’s why I’ve mostly stopped using the word user. In most cases there’s a more specific noun that easily takes it place: customers, clients, merchants, bloggers, readers, accountants, etc. It’s easier to relate to a reader rather than a user.

This isn’t about becoming the PC police. There’s nothing wrong with the word user in the right context. If you have a product that completely different groups of people use, user is the obvious way to shorten “people who use this product”.

I approach this as a thought experiment. Try not referring to your customers as users for a week or two. Do you notice that you relate to the people you build products for differently? I did.