Rethinking the Term “Users”

Josh Bernoff and Charlene LiJosh Bernoff wrote an intriguing post (titled “I’m sick of users”) about why we should avoid the term “users.” Josh says,

Nobody talks about users of dishwashers, or users of retail stores, or users of telephones. So why are we talking about “users” of computers, browsers, and software?

Try, just for a day, to stop using this word. You’ll be amazed at how differently you think about the world.

Web users become people looking for information.

Application users become employees trying to get stuff done.

Users of your Web site become customers.

I tend to agree. After reading the post, I was talking to someone who mentioned their “users,” and I had to laugh a little. When I hear the term, I now think of a drug user or some other addictive person.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Janet Swisher

    I’ve been thinking along similar lines lately, and I totally agree. Nobody uses software because they want to use software. They use software because they want to do something that goes beyond software. Even game-players use software because they want to be engaged and entertained.

    “Users” describes people in terms of their relationship to the product. If we avoid that term, we have to talk about people in terms of their roles or goals that they are using the software for. In order to do that, we have to understand who these people are. So, in a way, calling people “users” reveals our failure or laziness in audience analysis.

    I’m taking this post as inspiration to avoid “user” as much as possible from here out. If all else fails, there is “person”, which at least humanizes the discussion a bit more than “user”.

  • Janet

    I had a client whose style guide specifically discouraged the use of “user” for the reasons cited in the initial post. When readers of tech documents are IT people, though, you have to admit that “user” is useful.

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