Users versus humans versus customers

Some have called for a shift away from the term “users” as in “user experience”, suggesting “human experience” instead since they think the term “users” is “condescending, dehumanizing, and also severely overlooks how people are both influenced by and, in turn, influence a platform”. Along theses lines, some folks quote Edward Tufte who was quoting someone from Wired saying “There are only two industries which refer to their customers as users, drugs and computers.” Then a bunch of folks have misquoted it since a documentary called The Social Dilemma inserted the word “illegal” before “drugs” and changed “computers” to “software”.

Others point out that the term “human” is exclusive and problematic in other ways. Within the federal government, there has been an increased focus on “customer experience” as a term that encompasses all of a person’s interactions with a brand or an organization, within and outside of using a product.

There are tradeoffs here, and it’s complicated. I don’t have a concise solution, but here are some ways I think about it.

I think the effort to humanize people who use products is good. In clinical psychology, there has been a shift away from “patient” to “client” instead, which has mostly become mainstream. It’s fairly simple in this case – no clarity about the role is lost, and the connotations are much more empowering. Changing “users” to “humans” in software changes who you’re talking about. In some cases, this is intentional, like thinking about the impact the system has on others who don’t use the product, in addition to those who do use it. But sometimes this is unintentional. If I were to say “I’m going to interview 6 humans”, my teammates might ask “which humans? stakeholders? colleagues? end users of the product?” “Users” is more clear here.

As for “customer experience”, for some in government, this might be a helpful reframing. Thinking about constituents as customers might encourage them to uphold their entire experience with the government in a different way, perhaps based on the business adage, “the customer is always right“. For all the places I’ve worked in government, they already think about treating their constituents or users this way. From my perspective, coming from mostly private sector work and shifting into government midway through my career, I dislike the idea of calling people who interact with government services “customers”. It implies that there’s a commercial relationship there, which there often isn’t. Also, businesses can choose who their customers are and ignore others, but government agencies have a mandate to serve all their constituents. Take for example section 508’s accessibility requirements. When I hear “customer”, I think “some but not others”.

Words matter, but attitudes matter more. I still use “users” quite a bit. I use it with respect for the person. When I’m doing research, I talk of “participants”. And I still say “user experience” instead of “customer experience”, but I also think about the user’s touchpoints with the brand or organization outside of the product and the rest of their lives completely separate from what I’m working on. That said, there might be better words without the drawbacks of these ones, so I’ll keep searching for those.