Fast forward

X.5 September + October 2003
Page: 28
Digital Citation

When is a user not a user?

Aaron Marcus

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The CHI community seems to be in purposeful, creative turmoil. Besides discussing the challenging economic circumstances, where new revenues might be found, and marveling at the flood of people returning to universities to pursue or renew academic studies, many professionals are proposing theories about the profession itself—its key concepts, processes, and terms—and debating the appropriate organizational memberships and alliances with other organizations. Let's take a look at some basic terms by which we describe our profession. I began this topic in an earlier essay, and some of the definitions I proposed have been challenged. The topic seems worth further consideration. Let's give it another whirl.

back to top  What is the Correct Term for User?

At a recent special conference about information design, usability theory, and design practice at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design, Dirk Knemeyer, president of Thread, Inc., made an impassioned appeal to reject the term user in discussions of user-interface design and computer-mediated communication. He proposed instead that we refer to participants. Knemeyer argued that the term user is outdated, emphasizes one-directional usage, arises from an era when user interfaces were slow and not intuitive, and is not appropriate for circumstances that enable people to work or play quickly and almost without awareness of the user interface as an intermediary. In addition, the term user has many negative connotations, including being used, being used up, and illegal drug use. He felt that, instead, today's emphasis on interactive communication and customization suggests a term that implies more active involvement by the person in contact with machines and communication media. Knemeyer commented that if a person who goes to the gym is a gym-goer, or a "doer" with gyms, then our term for the human beings involved should evoke a more active, "mover and shaker" paradigm, suggesting doing things and thinking things. He recommended the term participant.

Another perspective is that systems in the past have been focused on an individual working with a computer system, not groups working collaboratively in real time or asynchronously, local or global, to accomplish mutual objectives. Also, there are others affected by the human-computer system, so-called "secondary users," who, as with second-hand smoking, receive the benefits or harm of computer systems.

Who, then are these people who work with, play with, interact with, or in other ways use computer-mediated products and services? Should one generic term describe them? What should we call them? What is implied by that noun or noun phrase? Upon reflection, there are many terms floating around in the industry and its literature, conferences, and hallways. Some readers may have heard or read one or more of the following examples:

  • Actors: At one point, the metaphor of theater was proposed for computer software. The term survives in discussions of behavior-oriented analysis. Also, interactive systems imply an "inter-actor."
  • Addicts: For better or worse, some marketers and business owners have actually stated their objective of making applications or Websites not merely "sticky" but addictive.
  • Consumers: Popular among marketers and business analysts.
  • Customers: Clearly popular for business-to-consumer (B2C) Web sites and Web applications, and for all popular software applications, of growing importance to customer-relationship management (CRM).
  • Guests: Popular with many savvy chains of stores and hotels who have trained their staff to see to their customers' needs and wants and to give them a good "guest experience."
  • Human beings: Sometimes shortened to the informal noun humans; survives in the European and engineering-oriented "human-machine interface" (HMI) concept. The term remains important and viable among human factors and ergonomics professionals.
  • Learners: Novices, intermediates, and experts are all on the path of learning how to use the functions and data provided.
  • Men: Survives in the outmoded, gender-biased "man-machine interface" (MMI), which is still occasionally encountered in the literature.
  • Objects: At the ends of links are nodes; the flip-side or relationship-based theories are entity- or object-oriented theories, not only of software, but of general collections of attributes about the users, their behavior, preferences, attitudes, values, rituals, symbols, beliefs, practices, etc. This term is popular among researchers and theorists.
  • Occupants: Popular with architectural, environmental, or other behavior-oriented applications.
  • Participants: Suggests activity, involvement, games, enrollment.
  • Persons: Implied in the "personal digital assistant (PDA)" and other products and services targeted to highly customized applications and content.
  • Patients: Suitable not only for medical/psychological systems, but perhaps for certain classes of general users.
  • People: Seems one of the most general and usable terms.
  • Players: Often used among game application developers.
  • Readers: E-books and other content-oriented products and services emphasize these people.
  • Subscribers: Useful for the enrollment and registration of locked-in consumers of products or services.
  • Stakeholders: Popular among branding and business professionals.
  • Subjects: Popular among research, evaluation, and testing professionals to describe those studied and tested.
  • Targets: Sometimes used or implied in marketing and sales discussions.
  • Victims: Sometimes used jokingly for the recipients of poorly designed user interfaces.
  • Viewers: Popular among mass-media-oriented applications, content, products, and services.
  • Visitors: Popular among developers of architectural applications, kiosks, and Web sites.

Of course, specific user classes are based on demographics, such as infants (yes, even infants have their own computer applications); toddlers; children; tweeners; teenagers; college kids; double-income, no-kids couples (DINKs); yuppies; men; women; parents, and seniors. However, no popular general term is in use for such demographic user groups. No one is likely to call users "demogs" or "demographic user communities." There are also the specific professional user groups based on their respective vertical markets (for example, health, wealth, finance, education, manufacturing, military, or government), with their attendant doctors, nurses, paramedics, executives, managers, clerks, attorneys, paralegals, teachers, students, operators, generals, soldiers, administrators, clerks, and citizens. Most of these terms depend on context and refer to what customers, buyers, and users, and their long-term relationships the makers of products and services seek to attract.

Bear in mind that some people drop the term "user" from user interface and simply refer to interfaces. Sometimes this single word seems to emphasize mere screen design, not metaphor, mental-model, navigation, or interaction design. For those discussions, users might or might not be emphasized at all in the relations that people have with products and services. Do people interact with them, play with them, work with them, participate in them, or use them? All seem reasonable at times.

Because there are machine-machine or computer-computer connections with "interfaces," I have tended in my own writing to emphasize the important point that we are focused on systems that must communicate and interact with human beings, not machine or computer systems.

In one way, the very debate about the term is evidence of a profound change in the profession that focuses increasing attention on user-centered design, user profiles, and usescenarios. In a way, we can celebrate this debate as a sign of victory. Conversely, which term is the right one to use?

One approach is to say that there is a general term but that user-interface-development professionals should be aware also of the correct term to use in different contexts. This approach is especially important for establishing good team relationships with fellow designers, analysts, evaluators, planners, researchers, marketers, business owners, engineers, and so on. Likewise, there is a need to use the correct term with clients and users themselves. We need ourselves to be sensitive to the cultures of the people we work with and our relationships with them. One false step can confuse or even alienate one's colleagues, clients, and customers. Perhaps we need to publish a "Guide to the Perplexed" to help everyone understand the possibilities and recommended best practices. The foregoing glossary is offered as a start.

Although many of the terms above are quite insightful and prompt one to think about nuances of user experience, for me, the old reliable but flawed user still seems usable and useful, if not always desirable. I suspect, however, that within this decade, the term will fade, to be replaced by another that gains maximum usage among user-interface development professionals, the business community, and the general public.

back to top  Who Are We? What Do We Do?

Other debates concern what we should call ourselves and the name of our profession. I have seen almost all of the following professional terms under a person's name on a business card over the past 30 years. These debates, in turn, lead to discussion about which professional organizations and conferences to attend, especially in the light of restricted budgets. Some candidates for terminology, organizations, and conferences appear listed below. Space does not allow for further elaboration and analysis, but keep these in mind as you think about what to call the people who use the results of our practice; what to call ourselves; and what to call what we do. Again, a longer, comparative guide and glossary with attributes called out, contact data, and commentary would be useful for all of us. If you think this would be useful for a future publication or Web site, or you know of an exceptional Web address already, please let me know and I'll try to use this information in a future installment of "Fast Forward."

back to top  Terms for Ourselves

Analyst; Architect; Arranger; Artist; Bricoleur; Coach; Designer (interaction, sonification, user-interface, visual, etc.); Diplomat; Documenter; Editor; Educator; Engineer; Expert; Explorer; Evaluator; Evangelist; Fundraiser; Gatherer; Genius; Guide; Guru; Hunter; Hypothesizer; Idealist; Ideationist; Informer; Inventor; Logician; Magician; Manager; Marketer; Master; Pattern arranger; Planner; Politician; Practitioner; Professional; Programmer; Researcher; Salesperson; Semiotician (applied); Synthesizer; Tester; Trainer; Visible language designer; Visualizer; and Wizard

back to top  Terms for What we Do

The following terms focus on the synthetic task of user-interface development, which is sometimes the "highest profile," has the highest caché, or is most familiar to the general public:

  • Application design; Applied semiotics; Communications design; Content design; Document design; Information architecture; Information design; Instructional design; Interaction design; Multimedia design; Product design; Service design; Software design; Usability design; User-experience architecture; User-experience design; User-experience engineering; User-interface design; User-interface engineering; Visible language programming; Visual design; and Web design.

back to top  Professional Organizations

The following are, for the most part, U.S.-oriented organizations, with parallel national organizations in other countries. Their contact data, objectives, and activities may be found through Web searches.

  • ACM: Association for Computing Machinery
  • AIA: American Institute of Architects
  • AIGA: American Institute of Graphic Arts
  • HFES: Human Factors and Ergonomics Society
  • ICOGRADA: International Council of Graphic Design Associations
  • ICSID: International Council of Societies of Industrial Design
  • IEEE: Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers
  • IDSA: Industrial Designers Society of America
  • IIID: International Institute for Information Design
  • SIGCHI: Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction, a unit of ACM
  • SIGGRAPH: Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interaction, a unit of ACM
  • STC: Society for Technical Communication
  • UPA: Usability Professionals Association

back to top  Conferences

The following are, for the most part, U.S.-oriented conferences of major professional organizations, with parallel national conferences in other countries. Many are sponsored by one or more of the organizations listed previously. Their contact data, agenda, schedules, and costs may be found through Web searches.

  • DIS: Designing Interactive Systems, jointly sponsored by ACM and others
  • DUX: Designing the User Experience, jointly sponsored by ACM and others
  • HCI: Human-Computer Interfaces, United Kingdom
  • HCII: Human-Computer Interfaces International, every two years in international locations
  • HFES
  • HICSS: Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences
  • IWIPS: International Workshop on International Products and Services
  • STC
  • UIST: User Interface Software and Technology
  • Visualization: visualization research, sponsored by IEEE, among others

back to top  Conclusion

Many of the basic terms of our profession are being discussed and debated today in panels at workshops and conferences, in chat rooms, and by the water cooler. Whom do we serve? What shall we call ourselves? What do we call what we do? These terms show up on our business cards and e-mail signatures; the underlying concepts pervade our thinking, talking, and actions.

Some user-interface designers or newcomers to the profession decided in the late 1990s to call themselves information architects or visual designers to represent more specific expertise. Some professionals are now calling themselves usability experts, user-experience designers, or simply experience designers. With the rise of usefulness and desirability, appeal, and emotion, some professionals are calling themselves "desire designers." These are trends reminiscent of movements in consumer product branding and marketing in decades past, of which the computer-related industries are now becoming aware. Note that AT&T has had a corporate department of "user-experience engineering" since 1997 and that other major corporations are considering shifting some of their corporate internal nomenclature to user-experience engineering.

These shifts in terminology are signs of significant changes in the professional landscape. The debate also suggests that there may be realignments of the organizations to which we belong, which conferences we attend, which literature we look at to continue our lifelong professional learning, and to which publications and theories we subscribe. We live in interesting times. Stay tuned for the latest developments.

back to top  Author

Aaron Marcus
Aaron Marcus, President
Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A)

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©2003 ACM  1072-5220/03/0900  $5.00

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