Is 'users' the best term?

Subject: Is 'users' the best term?
From: Stuart Burnfield <slb -at- FS -dot- COM -dot- AU>
Date: Tue, 19 May 1998 10:30:16 +0800


I hadn't thought about it before, but I see there could be dangers
in designing for an 'audience' -- grateful but passive recipients
of the designer's bounty. Designers should avoid thinking of
themselves as performers. It rarely improves the work.

So what should we use if not 'users' or 'audience'?


Whee, I'm famous! I wrote those last two paragraphs on the InfoDesign
list a few weeks ago. I've never had my words quoted back anonymously
to me before.

These comments came in the middle of a thread on the topic of 'what to
call them?'. her excerpts sum it up pretty well.

I think it was started by David Sless, who commented that how we design
and create our material is shaped by how we see the people who will use
it. "We" in this case are people such as tech writers, illustrators,
info designers and graphic designers.

Let's say my friend designs a simple database package intended for
family and home-office use, to use with managing recipes, mailing
lists, wine/book/CD collections, and so on. I write the manual.

If we both design and write with 'the users' in mind, we are defining
them wholly in terms of their interaction with our product. In fact
they may have almost nothing in common. Using our software may occupy
a fraction of one percent of their existence. But we have lumped them
in together.

Calling them 'users' promotes a 'one size fits all' design, which in
practice usually means 'one size fits nobody'. It tempts us to believe
that these people want to use, explore, understand, master the software.
Maybe they do. Probably they don't.

It's more helpful to think of them not as users, but as:

- the person who wants to collect all those handwritten recipes in one
- the person who wants to catalogue their coin collection
- the person who wants mail reminders to their clients
- half a dozen other types of people who need to do a task, and have
some reason to believe they can do it better/cheaper/faster with our
product than without

The key thing for us designers/writers to remember is that these
people's goal is to do the task, not to 'add a record' or tend to the
software in some other way. The product is the means, not the end.

I don't mean all this is some vague, hand-wringing way. I've come to
think that terms like 'users' and 'audience' are bad for me because
they constrain my thinking. I would like better, more practical ways
to think about and refer to my 'target population/audience of users'.

Usually I find this sort of metaphysical speculation abstract and
(favourite term of abuse) academic. But it really got me thinking.
I still wish there were a non-stereotyping collective noun for the-
people-formerly-known-as-users. Maybe 'orang orang' will catch on.

I found the discussion on InfoDesign really interesting and
enlightening, and meant to raise it on techwr-l when I got the chance.
Thanks to for bringing it up. I see no-one responded on-list --
anyone care to mull it over?

Stuart Burnfield "In libraries and railway stations
Functional Software Pty Ltd In books and banks, in the pages of history
mailto:slb -at- fs -dot- com -dot- au In suicidal cavalry attacks I recognise. . .
Myself in every stranger's eyes"
-- Roger Waters

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