Stop Saying “User” when There Is No “User”

But wait, isn’t everything we do for users? Nope!

I’m really beginning to hate the term “user.” It has become mainstream. Much as we say “google it” when we mean “search for something on a search engine,” “user” has become synonymous with anything we do in the design/development/product world.

There are two situations where I really want to see the term go away.

User Stories for System Implementations

User stories in a backlog are amazing. They are often written something like this: “As a <insert user>, I need to be able to see all of the currently open tables in the restaurant…”

That user could be a host who wants to seat some guests. Or that user could be a manager who wants to know when to start releasing servers to go home. Depending on the user, that story is going to change dramatically.

But what about features in the backlog that don’t have a “user”? I often hear everything in the backlog referred to as a user story, and it’s simply not true. For example, “As a <insert user>, I need to have Google Analytics added to the website to track movements…” is something that would never be written.

When the Audience Isn’t a User

Another scenario I’ve seen a lot has to do with designers talking about an audience—not a user. I recently attended a portfolio review for college seniors, and while some of their work was interface-related, other pieces were more focused on traditional design, such as components of a marketing campaign or a restaurant design.

Without fail, all of the students started to describe the pieces in their portfolio with a statement about who the “user” was. To my ears, though, it sounds a bit funny to describe an invitation to a fundraising event as something designed for a “user.”

As a design community, we need to expand our language to more accurately describe audiences. Users are a specific type of audience. Guests, visitors, patients, customers, etc. are also specific–but different–types of audiences.

Calling everybody a “user” diminishes the value of the term.

  • Bruce Abernethy says:

    It’s an interesting observation – and we do need to recognize people in different roles and aspects of people in our design and systems. But terms like User and Actor have become more genericized in some methodologies and patterns to mean more than “just people”. For example.

    “User” in Agile/Lean –
    “Actor” in UML –

    So from a user experience and usability standpoint, it is important to add a “Persona” or other profile to really get into the needs and even psychology/philosophy of a particular “User” or “Actor”.

    So, IMHO, there is still some value in the more generic terms of the methodologies themselves, as long as you don’t end there. ?

  • Andre Grilo says:

    Nice point, Kyle. For me the term ‘user’ applies to interaction design mainly, as a part of language used by the development team during discussion about screens and flows. I think this part of process as syntactic dimension* of design (more technical). In other hand, when we focused in product strategy, it amplifies to groups variation widely, moving the mindset from the interaction to the business and stakeholder approaches (and other interdisciplinary paths). This phase of design process is near to pragmatic dimension of design and it’s spoken in the business language.
    And I agree with Bruce, maybe the term ‘user’ or ‘actor’ work as synthetical word during design process communication.
    *the dimensions I cited are based on semiotic dimensions of design: pragmatic, syntactic and semantic (research topic I’ve studied last years)

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