What's in a name? (or: Who exactly are we selling to?)


There’s a tradition in the technology industry of a ‘user’. This, apparently, is the poor sod who’s going to ultimately use whatever you’re creating (software, steering wheels, microwaves, and so on). We’re not sure exactly who he is, but he must exist, right? Many of the more theoretical parts of software engineering use this term, for example: user-centered design, user interfaces, user error (a most horrifically arrogant expression), etc.

As a work for a commercial company, I resolved to give up using this word a few years ago, and call these entities ‘customers’ instead. I figured this would encourage me to be more customer-centric (duh). I’ve been relatively successful at giving up my addiction to ‘user’, and use of ‘customer’ reminds me that a feature / bug / product that isn’t important to one of our customers, although it might be important to a ‘user’, isn’t important to me either. After all, we’re here to make money, right?

But a recent article of Don Norman’s has convinced me that this approach, too, is damaging. Not as harmful as ‘user’, but still wrong. ‘Customer’ works fine for the business. But customers don’t want to be customers. They want to be people, and they want you to care about them and their needs. Thinking of them as people is a reminder that they have human values and failings, and should be recognised in a human way rather than as entities who exchange money for goods and services. Of course you want that exchange, but you don’t want them to feel like that’s the sole purpose of your relationship - otherwise you exclude yet another way for you to differentiate yourself from your competitors (others of which include producing good quality products, cheap products, faster-to-market products, and all the others we know and love).

As such, I plan to try and wean myself off ‘customer’, and onto ‘people’. Please let me know if I lapse.