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July 27, 2007

Observations from the "user" debate

by Josh Bernoff

Bbc_user_quote Thanks mostly to the BBC, which highlighted a quote from this blog yesterday (see left), 8000 people stopped by the Groundswell yesterday to read and talk about users.

I learned quite a bit from their responses, which I'll share.

I very much liked this quote from David Ogilvy's Ogilvy on Advertising, sent in by James Cherkoff:

"The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife."

Both my colleague Harley Manning, who leads Forrester's customer experience group, and a reader from the UK, Ken Tindall, pointed out that user interface expert Alan Cooper discusses this issue at length in his book The Inmates Are Running The Asylum. Cooper, and Forrester, recommend designing products with a specific person in mind -- a sort of archetype for the people you will be serving. This archetype is called a persona. Personas are one of the central elements of scenario design, designing Web sites (or anything) so a specific type of person can achieve their goals. When you're designing for "Fred" or "Amanda" instead of for a "user" it's easier to sympathize.

Finally, reading all these comments, many from developers, led me to create (forgive the ego) Bernoff's first law of usability:

The closer you work to technology, the more tempting it is to think of your clients and customers as "users" and not people.

I was led to this by the impassioned pleas to keep the word "user" from technical support people, Web developers, software developers, and writers of technical manuals, many of whom cling to it like a cherished stuffed animal. As my colleague Brian Haven wrote in his new blog:

Designers, technologists, and business practitioners should consider abandoning these terms to force themselves to focus on the needs and actions people take, which should inevitably lead to better products and services.

I am trying not to make offensive generalizations here, since many of you technology workers have reached an enlightened rapport with the people who use your products. But could this episode about users and "lusers" have happened anywhere but at MIT, where everyone is immersed in technology all the time?

This is not just political correctness. Next time your computer, a Web site you're visiting, or a technology product starts behaving in a way that mystifies and frustrates you, ask yourself, is this my fault? Or did this happen because the designer thought of me as a "user" and not a person?

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» Quote of the day from Heute denken, morgen fertig.
From David Ogilvys Ogilvy on Advertising (a book that is also mentioned elsewhere on this blog): The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife. (via) ... [Read More]



Obviously, as analysts, you should have already known about the discussion in Cooper's book The Inmates are Running the Asylum; or you could have asked any product manager who has worked in the last few years. It's common knowledge now to drop the idea of the generic user in favor of more concrete profiles. Go read some books and stop punditing.

Maybe you're out of your depth?

Robert Seidman

Generally speaking, real people don't buy Forrester or any other research or read internal corporate documents from companies they do business with or care about how companies refer to them internally when they are referring to them generically.

If you're not sending people direct e-mail, or postal mail saying, "Dear User," none of this is of any consequence whatsoever, is it?

If you are sending your customers/clients/members (insert politically correct name here) direct contacts referring to them as users, then please chime in and tell us about the massive response you had to deal with about customers/clients/members who were shocked and outraged by the reference.

Josh Bernoff

@John: There are experts on this here at Forrester -- Harley Manning for example. We're not all experts on everything!

@Robert Seidman: It does matter what you call people internally, because it affects how you treat them. They're not outraged that we call them users, they're outraged that we treat them like victims of technology.

Meli Hunt

What alternative would you suggest? "User" is more proactive than "visitor," "viewer" etc. I think it's wise for publishers to remember that people are using their sites, not just passively looking at them.

Dennis Howlett

Given the degree to which interactions between machines have been automated, how many of those machines would you call 'users?' It's an important point in the context of overall IT spend decisions.

Morriss Partee

I remember reading an article on dropping the term "user" from the tech vocabulary more than 10 years ago (though I don't recall where). "User" is an extremely derogatory term that we normally use when referring to drug addicts. I've been avoiding it ever since reading the article. "Person", "Customer", "Member", are all better words.... and YES, it certainly DOES matter what you say internally. It affects your way of thinking and therefore doing.

Gavin Heaton

The term "user" does indeed feel derogatory but it is also a term that also limits the field of "user" experience. It ensures that developers and even analysts focus on the USE of a technology rather than the IMPACT of that use on a business process, strategy - or more importantly - outcome.


There is a quite interesting book by Ellen Rose called "User Error" that discusses these questions.

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