See Users as People: The Problem with Users, Members, Consumers, They, and Them

At last year’s Health Experience Design conference a participant shared with me her concerns that the speakers might not see users as people. She had noticed that many speakers’ use the term “they” when describing their audience. The issue, as she explained, was that we (speakers) separate ourselves from a group of people when we refer to that group as “them” rather than “us.”

Specifically, she was referencing people with low health literacy. Since low health literacy impacts all of us at one time or another, to say “they have busy lives” or “they may have just been diagnosed with a severe condition” unnecessarily sets up us-vs-them barriers.

In this specific case there was an easy solution. I’ve since reframed many of my talks to think about when I can say “we” or “when any of us struggle with X” rather than “they” or “them.” Because I agree – I want to see users as people, and make sure that comes across in my talks.

But it’s not always so simple to know what the right term is.

Increase Humanity, by Seeing Users as People

The goal of using “us” instead of “them” is to remember that we are designing for people. Somehow, even though we work in human-centered design, this seems to be a tough concept to remember.

The first step in seeing users as people is to recognize their unique qualities. “Remember: you are not your user” is something we heard from 52 Weeks of UX in 2010, Nielsen Norman Group in 2017, and from UX Myths and many others in between. How do we do that? No solution is perfect.

  • Personas are great for learning about and creating a human feel for an audience segment, but they can also get you (the practitioner) too focused on a single person, and forget that they are representative of a larger group of people. Plus, they can get tacked up on a wall or put in a desk drawer and forgotten about.
  • Connecting to the audience through the use of “us” instead of “them” also has its challenges. Because remember… you are not your user. Saying “us” is great, until you start designing for yourself.
  • Avoiding the word “user” is often promoted. It’s not a human-sounding term, so opponents suggest replacing it with “people” or “consumers.” But that brings us to…
  • Avoiding the word “people”, since it’s vague and not descriptive enough, and…
  • Avoiding the word “consumers” since it implies people only matter if they are purchasing something.

So… what’s a UX practitioner to do?!

Words Matter (and so does Intention)

In reading Dan Saffer’s recent In Defense of “Users”, I was struck that it read almost like a George Carlin bit, jumping from one term to another, and listing the problems with every single one.

Typically, I’d say that intention doesn’t matter nearly as much as the words themselves. But in this case, the intention is the important part – because the audience is you. When you call your audience “users” they won’t hear it. What matters is your intention behind the term. If you say “they/them” are you doing so to separate them from yourself? Or are you doing so because it’s the most inclusive way to refer to an individual?

I’m reminded of a quote I once heard: parents who buy baby books tend to have children who are more successful. But it doesn’t matter what baby book the parent bought. What matters is that the parents care enough to buy the books.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether we call our audience users, consumers, members, or them. It just matters that we see users as people. It matters that we care.

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