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Opinion: Why we all need to stop using the word user. Like, now

The word user is the official industry term used to define the relationship between humans and tech. But Haydn Kerr, Executive Creative Director of Tribal Aotearoa (DDB Group’s digital experience agency) says to be defined in such a way is to ignore the rich, full life we lead beyond the browser window. And that’s a big mistake. 

Sorry to tell you this but right now, you are a user. That’s the official industry term for you, me and the other 4.5 billion people online. We’re all users. So, why is that a problem and what should we do about it?

You and I haven’t met, but I’m sure the word user is a terrible description of who you are. And I’m guessing you don’t like being called a user either. The only other industry that calls people users is the illegal drug trade. It’s a word that’s loaded with connotations of addiction and subordinance. Users are faceless. Users are homogenous. Users lack freedom and autonomy. But when you reflect on all your experiences across the digital world – work, play, learning, socialising, shopping, exercising, creating – the word “user” feels inaccurate, if not completely insane. 

You don’t merely use the web, like you’d use a calculator.  Whenever you’re online, you shape the internet, even in a small way. Think about all the times you share something for others to see. In those moments, you’re not a user, you’re creating an experience for others. If anything, the internet is using you … to engage others, and ultimately sell ad space. But in the eyes of the industry, all you are is how you use our products. 

The way you use this webpage must be the least interesting thing about you. But by definition, that’s all a user is. When we define you as a user, we ignore the rich, full life you lead beyond this browser window. We ignore the stuff that matters. And that’s a big mistake. Because if I want to create an experience that you’ll really connect with and remember, then I need to stop thinking about you as a user, and start engaging with you as an actual, living, breathing human.

Other creative industries understand this, and they’d never call you a user. A novelist writes for a reader, not a book user. An architect designs for residents, not a user of buildings. You visit galleries and museums – you don’t use them. At a restaurant, you’re a guest, not a user of food. Quentin Tarantino didn’t direct Reservoir Dogs for all the cinema users out there – he made it for film lovers who are into Tim Roth and heist movies. 

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But you’ll hear the word user everywhere you go in IT. The term dates back to the 1950’s when computers were so expensive that only companies could buy them, so manufacturers needed to differentiate between their customer (the company who owns the computer) and the actual end users (the employees). But even though this differentiation died decades ago, the word “user” is more alive than ever.

Take this webpage you’re on, for example. It was created by a User Experience (UX) Designer. Your experience is a “user journey” or “user flow” that will be recorded as “user data.” At any time, you may be part of “user testing” to ensure the site can reach the highest goal of UX design: “Usability.”

You might think it’s just a word – but our word choices reflect our view of the world, and they shape how we interact with it. This is certainly true in the world of digital design, where we have become obsessed with usability, efficiency and functionality. And I believe this fundamentally limits what the web can be.

Haydn Kerr Tribal Aotearoa
Haydn Kerr.

You can see the results of this obsession everywhere on the web – with identical, cookie-cutter sites that are efficient and functional, but never leave a lasting impression. You will have seen the proliferation of templated solutions like Squarespace and Wix which provide efficient and “frictionless” user experiences, but is that really all we want? 

In truth, humans cannot live on functionality alone. We all like to think we are rational people that behave in a logical manner, but modern psychology has shown that humans are irrational and governed by our emotions. And this is true on the web too. Research shows that even on transactional websites, our emotions shape our actions. How we feel about a website determines our level of involvement and our purchase intent (Mazaheri, Laroche).  If we have a positive emotional experience on a site, then we’re more likely to feel good after our purchase, tell others about it, and return to the website later (Philips, Baumgartner). But if our emotions govern our online behaviour, why do you never hear a digital agency talking about feelings?

Oddly, the industry was more ambitious in the early days of broadband, when we created huge web experiences in FLASH (and we just expected people to wait for each page to load). Now we have 5G and fibre, but the web experiences we see today are more simple and functional. For all its evolution, so much of the internet today feels like TV news in the 1950’s – information-rich and filled with words, but ultimately flat. If this medium is to reach the heights of other media, then it’s time to radically rethink and readjust our ambitions. And perhaps it starts with ditching the word ‘user’.

Plenty of people have called for the death of the word. Back in 2012, the founder of Twitter told his entire company that if “if I ever say the word user again, immediately charge me $140.” And the Director of Product Design at Facebook (Meta) has called for the company to replace users with people saying:

It’s kind of arrogant to think that the only reason that people exist is to use what you built. They actually have lives, like, outside of the experience they have using your product. So the first step to designing in a human-centered way is to recognize that they’re humans.

So why does user continue to be the most common word in the digital language? Perhaps it’s because we don’t have an alternative. So what can we replace it with? 

Personally, I think the online world is as varied as life itself, so we should stop trying to use a single word for all people on all occasions. Instead, we can choose a word that aligns with the specific role that we want people to play. If the role is passive, then I like the term audience as it invites us to focus on entertainment and emotion. If the experience is more interactive, then participant feels right. They’re not in control of the overall experience, but they have freedom to make choices and change the experience for others. If it’s an e-commerce site, then I love the word customer as it encourages us to focus on service and how we can meet their needs. And if we’re building a tool, then maybe the word user might just be appropriate.

But I have another approach to propose. Here in New Zealand, we can draw on a concept that has been with us for centuries: Manaakitanga, which means extending aroha to others, especially when we’re hosting them. And what is a website or app but a place where we host others? So instead of seeing you as a user, what if the industry treated you like a guest or manuhiri? According to Māori belief, when we show hospitality to our guests, we grow their mana, which in turn encourages them to do the same to us and to others. Just imagine the beautiful digital worlds we could create if this was our operating principle. (The comments section would look a lot different.)

If I’m honest, even if I have convinced you to stop calling people users, the word is so deeply baked into our industry that we’re probably stuck with it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t oppose the underlying attitudes, and especially the reductive definition of our audience. Once we begin to think about our guests in the broadest possible terms, we’ll start creating experiences that are as rich, varied and human as they are.

Haydn Kerr is the Executive Creative Director of Tribal Aotearoa (DDB Group’s digital experience agency).

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